In the interests of transparency…

A couple of weeks back there was a damning piece in The Guardian on the ever-expanding culture of casual contracts in academia. The University of Nottingham unfortunately featured heavily. Here’s a key quote from the article. (Greg is not the real name of the academic in question).

Over time, [Greg] took on more work: one day of teaching at Nottingham and another at a rival university. These were casual contracts: short-term, and paying him only by the hour. As such, they offered more experience than income. So he also did some gardening and, where possible, wrote for a local newspaper.

He was pulling five jobs, working up to 70 hours a week. And he was still only making £22,000 to £23,000 a year before tax – below the national average. 

According to The Guardian article (which cites, and I quote, “official figures”), 45% of all staff at the University of Nottingham involved in teaching, or teaching and research, count as casual labour. This is, The Guardian claims, comparable to the national situation where somewhat over half of all academics are on casual contracts. The University of Nottingham has challenged the statistics in The Guardian article. And the UoN branch of the University and College Union (UCU) has in turn challenged the response from UoN management.

I’ve written previously about the intense competition that exists for lecturing positions. (As I tell the PhD and postdoctoral researchers in the group here, I know that what I had in terms of academic “outputs” to secure a lectureship at Nottingham back in 1997 wouldn’t even get me within sniffing distance of a short-list today). This competitive pressure underpins the growing casualisation of staff in the ways described by The Guardian. As a colleague here at Nottingham put it (in one of many letters responding to that article),

How ironic that you should publish Nicholas Maxwell’s plea (Letters, 17 November) for universities to engage in intelligent public education on the same day that you reveal sector-wide exploitation of academic employees. Our generously remunerated vice-chancellors have already high-tailed it in the opposite direction, content to undermine intellectual standards while easing many young adults towards unrecoverable debt.

Peter Shaw
Professor of biochemistry, University of Nottingham

I meant to write a post about that Guardian exposé long before now but I’ve been up to my ears with teaching, admin, reviewing (and, very occasionally, research) commitments so the blog has had to to take a back seat. In any case, many others, particularly in that lengthy series of letters, have said just about everything I wanted to say. What I instead want to focus on here is the flip-side of the casualisation coin: the extent to which the working patterns of permanent academic staff, and, equally importantly, their non-academic colleagues, are under-estimated, under-reported, and too often under-valued.

Last week was the first “session” for what’s known as the Transparent Approach to Costing (TRAC), an annual survey of just how academics spend their time. Various schools are selected each year and their staff asked to complete a record of the number of hours spent on different activities: teaching, research, “other income generating activities”, “support general”, and “sickness”.  This involves filling out a timesheet of activities split into those categories.

So what’s wrong with that, you might ask? Feeding back an accurate record of academic work patterns to the funding bodies must surely be a useful exercise to help inform and assess spending commitments. Isn’t that a laudably transparent approach? The problem is that it’s not the raw data on the hours spent on these activities that are returned. Instead, the percentage of time on research vs teaching vs admin is returned by the university to HEFCE. The TRAC methodology, along with the research councils’ grant application processes, assumes a 37.5 hour working week (and a 44 week working year). That strikes me as an approach that’s not entirely lacking in opacity.

In the interests of full transparency, therefore, I thought I’d keep a diary of just how I spent my time during Week 1 of the TRAC 2016-2017 survey. Here we go…

Monday November 21 2016

05:30 – 06:15 Finish off reviewing paper that has been on my “To Do” list for three weeks. Second reminder from the editor to submit the review arrived yesterday.

06:30 – 07:15 Having logged in to e-mail to find link to submit review of paper, check e-mails. Check over proofs of recent paper to be published in Nanotechnology. Read proofs of new undergraduate prospectus and note suggestions for changes.

08:00 Office. Check e-mail. Send quick response to colleague re. seminar (see below) and answer questions from students re. coursework for Year 4 module.

08:30 Meet up with invited speaker for the F34PPP module at the campus hotel.

09:00 Seminar by invited speaker for F34PPP module.

10:15 Coffee with invited speaker. Discuss organisation of workshop planned for next year.

11:00 More e-mails. Check UCAS statistics for undergraduate applications. Meet (very) briefly with PhD student to discuss research progress.

12:00 Lunch with visiting seminar speaker.

13:00 Undergraduate admissions meeting. (I’m UG admissions tutor).

14:00 Walk visiting seminar speaker back to hotel. Respond to e-mails when I get back to office.

15:00 School Operations Group meeting.

16:00 Meeting with PhD student and postdoctoral researcher. Visit lab. to see what’s happening.

16:30 Meeting with PhD student.

17:00 Notice that speaker’s camera tripod has been left in my office. Bring tripod back to hotel. (Not quite certain as to which TRAC category is most appropriate here…).

19:00 Another hour of e-mails before getting my son ready for bed.

Tuesday November 22 2016

05:00 – 06:00 Write 500 words of popular science book I’ve been working on over the last year. Deadline: January 2017 (gulp). Again, not quite certain as to which TRAC category this falls under (if any). Is it impact or not?

06:00 – 07:00 E-mails. Again. Handle questions related to our 1st year undergraduate scholarships and other admissions-related enquiries. Send e-mail to 1st year lab organiser to apologise that my report marking is most likely going to be late.

08:30 — 11:30 Travel to Bury (beside Manchester) for a visit to Holy Cross School to talk about career opportunities in physics, and how to apply for physics degrees. Spent majority of time on trains marking 1st year lab reports and answering e-mails. (Also take time to check comments on a YouTube video I uploaded recently. Never a good idea…)

11:30 – 14:30 Visit to Holy Cross School. Lunch with Head of Physics.

14:30 – 18:00 Trains back to Nottingham. More 1st year lab report marking. Write “Comma splice. You need a full stop here” more times than I’ll ever care to remember. More e-mails. Lots of correspondence re. tomorrow’s UCAS visit day. E-mail informing me that new sample holder has fallen in the bottom of the ultrahigh vacuum chamber. Sigh.

Wednesday November 23 2016

05:00 – 06:00 A few hundred more words for the pop. sci. book. Best part of the working day. (Still don’t know whether this is TRAC-able, however).

06:00 – 07:00 Draft letter related to admissions.

09:15 – 10:45 Flurry of e-mails and informal meetings related to first UCAS visit day of the season. Mark one more lab report in “gaps”.

11:15 – 12:00 Visit lab to chat with PhD and postdoc researchers. More e-mails.

12:00 – 15:45 UCAS visit day (includes lunch with parents of applicants)

16:00 Brief meeting with PhD student.

16:15 E-mails: budget management on an EU grant and a reference for an alumnus of the group.

17:00 – 17:40 Skype conversation with mature student thinking of applying for physics degree course.

21:00 – 22:00 Spend a little time working on a manuscript that has been in “gestation” for far too long.

Thursday November 24 2016

06:00 – 07:30 Too far behind on lab marking (deadline today). Forgo spending time writing book to mark lab reports.

09:00 – 12:00 Normally this should be my 1st year lab demonstrating session. Due to admissions activity this week (and previous weeks), this session is being covered by a colleague. Spent time marking 1st year lab reports instead (and, of course, the mandatory e-mailing activity in “parallel”).

12:00 – 13:30  Lunch with colleagues (and an alumnus of the group who is visiting UoN today).

13:30 – 14:00 E-mails.

14:00 Meeting with 3rd year project students.

14:30 Meeting with tutee interested in possibility of summer internship in nanoscience group. Brief tour of labs.

15:00 – 18:00 Lab report marking.

21:00 Not feeling too well…

Friday November 25 2016

05:00 E-mail colleagues and tutees to say that I am not going to be in today due to illness — not been a good night. Tutorial scheduled for 15:00 today cancelled.

14:00 Still feeling queasy but rather better than twelve hours earlier. Start marking again.

19:00 Five hours’ marking completed (with periodic tea breaks).  

Saturday November 26 2016

06:30 – 10:00 Lab report marking.

15:00 -17:30 Lab report marking.

19:00 – 20:30 Lab report marking. (Almost infinitely preferable to Strictly…, which rest of family is watching).

Sunday November 27 2016

06:00 – 7:30 Lab report marking.

08:45 – 09:45 Lab report marking during my daughter’s ice skating lesson.

18:00 – 19:0021:30 – 23:30 Lab report marking


That’s 57 hrs, give or take the odd tea break. Note the lack of any type of hands-on research save for one hour spent on a paper. I am not griping in any way that the total number of hours is rather larger than the nominal HEFCE/RCUK 37.5 hr working week. Moreover, my hours are entirely in line with those of many of my colleagues (and, indeed, are a distinct improvement on the 80 hr weeks many early career academics work. When they start their lectureship they need to set up their research group, deal with a new world of administration, and often teach in parallel. (Many departments, however, set a minimal or reduced amount of teaching for the first few years of a lectureship.)

I enjoy my job. (Well, OK, let’s be honest, I can’t put hand on heart and say I always enjoy marking lab reports. But even marking has its upsides. I think…). And at least some aspects of the job remain effectively a hobby. The hours totted up above aren’t a problem; there are many people who work much longer hours in much more stressful jobs. (I’m not a junior medical doctor, for example). The thing that grinds my gears, however, is that a process which goes by the name of the Transparent Approach to Costing is anything but transparent.

Universities rely a great deal on the good will of staff (at all levels), lecturers’ love of their subject, and the willingness to do the best we can for our students. Yet as higher education becomes ever more corporate, university management reduces academics and teachers, the lifeblood of the university, to simplistic metrics and numbers on spreadsheets. They no longer connect with those working at the chalk-face and are too often cosseted away from the rank-and-file of academia. This not only demoralises staff but does a disservice to the students who pay a great deal of money to be taught by academics who would like to feel rather more valued by their institution.

Hard-Wired To Sleepwalk



That’s my reaction to the new Metallica album, released on Friday. It’s not a snap judgement — I’ve listened to Hardwired To Self-Destruct four times over now and tried my utmost to give it a chance. Hardwired… has its moments of spark and originality, where the band fire on at least a couple of cylinders, but those are lost in a sea of pedestrian riffing and uninspired vocals that the Metallica who recorded Master Of Puppets, …And Justice For All, and Metallica (aka The Black Album) would have left on the cutting room floor.

Master Of Puppets is in my top ten albums of all time; I  still listen to it on an almost weekly basis. It’s a classic that set the bar for so many other bands because it represented an innovative coupling of huge riffs, aggressive-yet-melodic vocals, intelligent arrangements, and, yes, memorable, off-kilter drum patterns. (Lars Ulrich gets a lot of flak for his drumming these days — often deservedly so — but his work on MOP, …AJFA, and Metallica is very often inspired. Take a listen to what he does on the opening to Harvester Of Sorrow  (from …AJFA). Or revisit those iconic double bass drum sextuplets in One.)

I realise that the Metallica of today is not the Metallica of 1986. I’m not expecting them to reproduce the output from those halcyon thrash metal days. But instead of evolving, instead of continuing to set the bar when it comes to intelligent metal music, they’ve been trying to recapture past glories for decades now. Dom Lawson, a fine writer with a deep knowledge of the metal genre, kicks off his review of the album for The Guardian as follows: “Metallica have just made their finest record in 25 years”. True. And that’s precisely the problem. Metallica’s output since their eponymous, multi-platinum, stadium-slaying opus in 1991 has been almost continuously sub-par, and that’s even excluding the abominations that were the Lulu album and Some Kind Of Monster (although the latter at least rivaled Spinal Tap in terms of (unintentional) comedy value).

The worst thing about Hardwired…  is that much of it sounds like it could have been recorded by any one of the slew of second division thrash metal bands that trailed in Metallica’s wake back in the eighties and early nineties. Vocals that didn’t quite hit the Hetfield heights (and depths), riffs that lacked the punch to the gut of a Battery, a Sad But Trueor a Creeping Death, lyrics that were hurriedly written on the back of a fag packet during a lengthy liquid lunch down the local — all said and done, a poor facsimile of the masterful Metallica sound.

“Ignorance and prejudice and fear walk hand in hand…”

They say there are strangers who threaten us
In our immigrants and infidels
They say there is strangeness too dangerous
In our theaters and bookstore shelves
That those who know what’s best for us
Must rise and save us from ourselves

Quick to judge
Quick to anger
Slow to understand
Ignorance and prejudice
And fear walk hand in hand…

From Witch Hunt, Rush. Part III of Fear.

Track 6 of Moving Pictures. Lyrics: Neil Elwood Peart.

© Copyright with Lyrics © Ole Media Management.



“The Natural Order of Things?” Revisited: Nature, Nurture, and Nattering with Noel*

“But as an explanation for natural form, natural selection is not entirely satisfying. Not because it is wrong, but because it says nothing about mechanism. In science, there are several different kinds of answer to many questions. It is like asking how a car gets from London to Edinburgh. One answer might be `Because I got in, switched on the engine, and drove’. That is not so much an explanation as a narrative, and natural selection is a bit like that–a narrative of evolution.

An engineer might offer a different scenario: the car got to Edinburgh because the chemical energy of the petrol was converted to kinetic energy of the vehicle (not to mention a fair amount of heat and acoustic energy). This too is a correct answer, but it will be a bit abstract and vague for some tastes. Why did the car’s wheels go round? Because they were driven by a crankshaft from the engine…and before long you are into a mechanical account of the internal combustion engine.”

Philip Ball, in “The Self-Made Tapestry: Pattern Formation in Nature

(Oxford University Press (2001))


If you haven’t read Philip Ball’s wonderful “The Self-Made Tapestry”, I thoroughly recommend it. It’s a tour de force overview and analysis of the physics and chemistry underpinning pattern formation in nature and a very engaging read (in common with just about everything Ball writes). When our research group here at Nottingham worked on self-assembly/self-organisation in nanoparticle systems [1] — which has fascinating parallels with the physics of coffee stains [2] — it was on the “must read” list for the students and postdocs in the group.

I was reminded of Ball’s book, and, in particular, his musings on D’Arcy Thompson’s work (from which the opening quote above is taken), during a recent exchange of e-mails with a YouTuber known as Noel Plum. The full exchange with Noel, which stemmed in part from this blog post on the theme of the gender balance in physics, is below. Noel and I will also be having a ‘face-to-face’ chat tomorrow via the technological wonder that goes by the name of the Google ‘Hangout’ to clarify our positions on the themes in the e-mail exchange (and possibly some others). [EDIT 03/11/2016: This has been postponed until next Friday, Nov 11].

My discussions with Noel have led me into the murky and muggy waters of the field known as evolutionary psychology. If you’ve not encountered evo psych (to give it its pop sci abbreviation), then this debate between a key proponent and an outspoken critic of the field is a good place to start. This rather more recent review article, which aims to address criticisms of the field, is also well worth a read, although it rather overstates the case at times for the empirical evidence supporting the evo psych stance in many areas. A slightly more balanced overview of evolutionary psychology is given in the Stanford Encyclopaedia Of Philosophy. (That Stanford site is a great resource for very many aspects of science, including the fundamentals of quantum physics).

This blog post bluntly highlights many of the key issues with the less, let’s say, scientific forms of evolutionary psychology. Having spent quite a bit of time trawling the literature on this topic, and notwithstanding the important counter-arguments made by Confer et al. in their review, the penultimate paragraph of the blog post highlights some of the key difficulties:

The common misconception spread by bad Evolutionary Psychology is that we have any significant understanding of evolved behaviors in humans. This belief is pushed out year after year in books by Pinker, Buss, Tooby and others, and it has now become more of an exercise in politics rather than attracting interest in science and rational thinking. Consistently these EP journals print articles discussing how women prefer the colour pink because it reminds them of red berries from the hunter-gatherer times of our ancestors15, ignoring the fact that the preference for pink in women is an extremely recent trend from the last few centuries (traditionally baby boys were dressed in pink and girls in blue), and ignoring the fact that hunter-gatherer roles were not separated by sex; or articles about how men are attracted to red lipstick because they look like vaginas16. Even the more credible claims like cheater detection, or men being attracted to women with low weight-to-hip ratios17, are plagued by poorly thought out methodological designs and an over-eagerness to ignore the relevant literature on possible learning mechanisms that could account for the data – so much so that they earn themselves the reputation of being ‘behavioral creationists’.

Are there aspects of evolutionary psychology that are worth taking on board and considering? Of course.

Would I go as far as to dismiss all researchers in the field as “behavioural creationists”? No. (And, to be fair to the writer of the post quoted above, nor does he.)

Am I an expert in psychology, or evolutionary dynamics, or population dynamics, or evolutionary biology in general? No, far from it. I’m a lowly, but interested, physicist.

But what strikes me time and again in browsing the literature in the evo psych field is the unscientific credulousness of the working methods. Often — but I’ll stress again, not always — there is a rather troublesome element of “wish fulfillment”. As Peters puts it in his critique of evolutionary psychology,

…the results of even the most rigorous studies have been open to alternative, scientifically valid means of interpretation (e.g., Buller, 2005; Richardson, 2007). What constitutes “evidence” would seem to vary in accordance with the theoretical assumptions of those viewing it…

When theoretical paradigms are unable to agree on what it is that they are looking at, it reminds us that the data are anything but objective, and gives good reason to question the theoretical blueprints being used…

This issue of the central importance of data interpretation in science — and how two different scientists, or teams of scientists can reach entirely opposing conclusions given the same set of data — is something I have banged on about at length in the first couple of sessions for the “Politics, Perception and Philosophy of Physics” module. As scientists, we’d love to think that data are objective and that the data do not lie. This is an exceptionally naive position. Yes, in the long run and assuming that there is sufficient reproducibility in the measurements from team to team, and that credible control experiments can be designed to remove noise and confounding variables, and that the scientific publishing system does not entirely remove any incentive to attempt to reproduce previous work, the “truth will out”. But “in the long run” could mean years, decades, or even centuries…

It’s been at least two blog posts since I last quoted Richard Feynman. As I’ve pointed out before, we physicists are contractually obliged to cite Feynman at least twice daily so here’s at least one daily dose of the man’s wisdom:

“…the first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool… I’m talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you’re maybe wrong, [an integrity] that you ought to have when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists…”

I don’t see too much evidence of this willingness to “bend over backwards to show you’re maybe wrong” in the evolutionary psychology literature. Now, perhaps I’ve just been looking in the wrong places, but what I instead too often see, as Philip Ball puts it so well in that quote that opens this post, are narratives dressed up as science.

Anyway, that’s more than enough background. The exchange with Noel is below. Noel has the last word. For now. 🙂 The points raised in his most recent missive will be covered in the ‘hangout’ tomorrow…

[1] See, for example, Coerced mechanical coarsening of nanoparticle assemblies
M. O. Blunt et al., Nature Nanotech. 2, 167 (2007); Controlling Pattern Formation in Nanoparticle Assemblies via Directed Solvent Dewetting, C. P. Martin et al., Phys. Rev. Lett. 99, 116103 (2007); and, for a review, Dewetting-mediated pattern formation in nanoparticle assemblies , A. Stannard , Journal of Physics: Condensed Matter 23, 083001 (2011).

[Note that all links above are to the non-paywalled, .pdf version of the paper].

[2] I will always take any opportunity to flag up the deep links that connect coffee and science.

From: ‘Noel Plum’
Sent: 23 October 2016 13:23
To: Moriarty Philip
Subject: RE: Video now online

Fyi this may be of interest. My take on your disagreement with Mason over sexual dimorphism.

Short version. Morphological dimorphisms do not indicate nuerological dimorphisms but they do indicate differentials in selection pressures between the sexes and there are fundamental evolutionary reasons why we should expect cognitive changes to reflect thise pressure differentials in just the same way.

Anyway, always let people know if i mention them so here you go 🙂


From: Moriarty Philip
Sent: 23 October 2016 16:51
To: ‘Noel Plum’
Subject: RE: Video now online

Hi, Noel.

Thanks for making that video and thanks also for the “heads up”. In terms of the latter, I owe you an apology. You’re mentioned in the blog post linked to below (which went up yesterday evening) but it was uploaded in a rush as I had to dash out of the office to get back before my wife went to start her night shift. (She’s a nursing auxiliary and does a lot of shift work).

I had of course meant to e-mail you about the post but, I’ll be honest with you, it slipped my mind. When your e-mail arrived this afternoon my first thought was “Oh bollocks, I knew there was something I meant to do”.

I’ll post a comment under your video when I get a chance (possibly this evening) but I look forward to discussing this with you the week after next in any case. (Any update on what day might suit you best?)

Our positions are fairly close but for me it ultimately boils down to one word: evidence. I counted a lot of “might”s and “perhaps”s (and maybe one or two “maybe”s?) in your video. What you have is an hypothesis. But without evidence to support that hypothesis – and you yourself have made this point clearly in the past – that’s exactly what it remains – an hypothesis.

Moreover, it’s nigh on impossible to “deconvolve” the dimorphic effect from the societal pressures. (Note the quotes round “deconvolve”.) In the absence of evidence the only true scientific response is “I don’t know”. That’s my position. It’s always been my position.

When you say that you suspect that the “urge” to do nursing is biological in part, that’s also an hypothesis. Without the appropriate control experiment – which, as you say is rather ethically dubious! – then how do you account for confounding variables? And there are a heck of a lot of them.

It reminds me a little of how economics – that most dismal of sciences [PJM edit 03/11/2016: Before any economists start rattling their keyboards, this is a joke]  – works. We choose three of four variables and three or four coupled equations. Those other 113 variables? Well, they’re just externalities! And they wonder why economics fails to predict the most seismic of crashes…

All the best,



From: ‘Noel Plum’
Sent: 23 October 2016 17:28
To: Moriarty Philip
Subject: RE: Video now online

Thanks philip, still havent checked those dates but will do so the next couple of days and tell you where I am at.

Wrt your point, absolutely it is a hypothesis but then so is whatever would underpin an expectation or target of 50:50. As things stand I haven’t even heard so much as a hypothesis as to why we ought to expect 50:50 (equality of outcome) let alone any reason as to why our cognitive abilities and preferences are unlijely to be differentially to the forces of natural selection and differences in selection pressure over whatever nehaviours have differentiated men and women.

To be clear: I certainly do not believe my hypothesis to be saying other than than any target you set is built on wishful thinking but scientific sand.

If I was to set targets it would be to interview children of different ages as to whether they felt all subjects were valid choices for people of their sex. That would be my goal with a view to removing any orecinceptions but then let the results fall however they do (rather than attempt to artificially engineer outcomes we find statistically sociopolitically appealing).

Btw i have a little addendum uploading just on how the first past the post nature of degree choice exaggerates differences between male and female interests (regardless of natuvism vs empiricism).

Will have a look at the blog later matey,

Take care,



From: Moriarty Philip
Sent: 23 October 2016 20:38
To: ‘Noel Plum’
Subject: RE: Video now online

Hi, Noel.

Yes, 50:50 is also an hypothesis. But I’m not even putting forward that hypothesis.

This is the core difference between Mason’s stance and mine and it’s an exceptionally important difference. I am not putting forward a claim that the gender balance in physics is a 50:50 nature:nurture effect. I certainly refer to that particular paper and the 50:50 ‘effect’ in “The natural order of things…” blog but nowhere in that blog did I make the claim that for physics the balance is 50:50. Indeed, I explicitly state that it is exceptionally difficult to determine the balance for any given system.

Scientists (or, for that matter, anyone) should not have “expectations” nor stand behind hypotheses in the absence of evidence. So I don’t know what the balance is. Neither do you. Neither does Mason. I would argue that in the absence of evidence, and adopting a reasonable Bayesian approach, that a non-biased 50:50 would be the most appropriate starting point but that depends on our “priors”…

I’ll ask you the same question I asked Mason. (And I know I’ll get a much better response from you than “meh…head up your ass…I was trolling you”!). Where is the evidence to suggest that the gender balance in *physics* is determined, at any level, by sexual dimorphism? A study has not been done which credibly — or, indeed, in any way — normalises out the environmental/societal component.  If it has, please point me towards that study. I’ve trawled the literature and I’ve not found it.

If that study doesn’t exist, can you point me towards the evidence that supports your argument *in the particular case of physics ability/preference*? Because of the exceptional complexity of the systems we’re discussing, and the degree to which the various variables and dynamics interact, I really don’t find it credible at all to port across reasoning from other “samples”/systems to justify a conclusion in another given system.

Using the Olympics to try to justify that sexual dimorphism is a determinant of the gender balance in physics is an extreme example, but so too, I would argue, is claiming that whether or not male chimps prefer to play with trucks has something (anything) to do with preference/aptitude for physics. (I know you didn’t bring up this example but, believe me, I’ve heard it many times before from others who have attempted to defend Mason!). It’s a bit like arguing (rightly) in physics that all objects fall with the same acceleration due to gravity and then being puzzled why – with the addition of only one new (and very simple) term in the differential equation, let alone a plethora of intercoupled variables and dynamics! – a feather and a hammer don’t hit the ground at the same time…

However, there *is* clear evidence that societal factors play an important role. See, for example, the IOP report to which this blog post refers (not my post this time):

Girls were almost two and a half times more likely to go on to do A-level physics if they came from a girls’ school rather than a co-ed school (for all types of maintained schools in England)”

You make the point that the societal contributions could very well amplify what “innate” sexual dimorphism “signal” there might be. That’s a reasonable working hypothesis. But I’ll ask again: where is the evidence that there’s an innate “signal” there in the first place? Or what if the signal-to-noise ratio is so low that the signal is dominated by the societal “noise”? We can hypothesise as much as we like but until there is evidence for that signal in the first place, it is unscientific to claim it’s there. (Why else would physicists have a 5 sigma criterion – an exceptionally tough criterion — for claiming the discovery of a new particle?)

I’m sorry to be so tediously repetitive about this but where is the evidence that (a) “neurological” dimorphism, to use your helpful term, plays a role in aptitude or preference for *physics*; and (b) that the dimorphic aptitude/preference in question would be immutable. The latter is key. We know just how plastic the brain is. Why is it that the dimorphic signal, assuming it’s there, must be static? Why can’t it be affected on short time scales due to environmental input?

We learn stuff, right? As I say in this video — (a direct response to Mason) – my spatial reasoning skills developed a huge amount with practice. Why assume that those aptitudes or preferences are hard-wired?

You seem to suggest that the dimorphic signal is somehow isolated from the environment and remains in stasis, while the environment affects other aspects of learning/preference/aptitude. Please correct me if I’m wrong on that. You also argue that the environment could amplify that signal.  But if that’s the case, why couldn’t the environment just as easily attenuate that dimorphic ‘signal’? After all, amplifiers can have a gain less than 1…

It’d be helpful if I could upload this exchange to the blog, Noel. I’ll understand entirely, however, if you’d prefer I didn’t do that. I realise that the request is coming after we’ve got a few e-mails into the exchange and I didn’t suggest this at the start.

It’s just that it’d be great to have an exchange on this dimorphism issue at the blog which went a little bit beyond –sorry, make that orders and orders of magnitude beyond — “meh…head up your ass…” in terms of counter-arguments.

All the best,



–At this point Noel gave me permission to make the e-mail exchange available at the blog. Thanks, Noel. I’ve not included the e-mail here because there was nothing in it relevant to our discussion. —


From: ‘Noel Plum’
Sent: 28 October 2016 22:42
To: Moriarty Philip
Subject: RE: Video now online

Hi Philip,

So reading through your response to me it is clear this is not going to be the briefest of replies. If I may, I will quote some of what you say to make it obvious what parts I am responding to.

The first part of your reply I find somewhat confused (as if perhaps you misunderstood me) and I think we may be in danger here of conflating 50:50 gender balance with 50:50 nature/nurture.

So you start off saying this:
“Yes, 50:50 is also an hypothesis. But I’m not even putting forward that hypothesis.”

So that is all fine and dandy. However, as I said in the video, this is something many people seem to say when asked directly but then their other statements seem to contradict it. For example, whilst I have heard your good friend Kristi, in conversation with you, say that she fully accepts the possibility of innate predispositions which are distributed dimorphically (I am assuming we all accept that individual humans have innate predispositions; not all born as blank slates and we are discussing whether differences in such predispositions are spread differentially between the sexes) yet she then leaves a comment like this (I quote Kristi directly):

“If population is 51-49, why shouldn’t every part of society reflect that biological distribution? From parenting to leisure activities, what do you see as a reason those shouldn’t mirror the population?” (see footnote 1)

To my mind it smacks of hyperscepticism to see even in things related to parenting a default assumption that males and females would be equally and similarly predisposed (assuming she was not suggesting some slightly ethically dubious process by which we engineer the minds of individuals for no other reason than to fit our statistical ends), in lieu of specific evidence to the contrary.

Do we view chimpanzees and assume that the parenting differences are a result of chimp culture? Gorillas then? Perhaps Orangutan? Old world monkeys? New world monkeys? Gibbons?

It seems odd to me that we would observe an area of dimorphic behaviour (and we are talking a large dimorphism in behaviour, not something that needs tweezing out) across the entirety of the order of primates (and a long way beyond) and accept that innate and instinctively founded traits are the prime mover and yet default to an assumption that there is no obvious reason why differential attitudes to parenting should exist in ourselves (that the dimorphism has disappeared and been replaced by something that looks exactly the same but is cultural in origin), unless somehow we are able to demonstrate a valid reason why homo sapiens should not be exceptionally removed from the same reasoning and understanding of evolutionary mechanisms that we see as obviously applying everywhere else.

It would not be quite so bad were it not for what you yourself recognise as the practical difficulty in isolating such factors in our own species, particularly whilst sticking to ethical requirements. I find it very frustrating, I will be honest.

So anyway, at this point, with the caveat of the point made above, I didn’t suspect any confusion. It is the next two paragraphs where the discussion goes somewhat off the rails. Here was your first line:

“This is the core difference between Mason’s stance and mine and it’s an exceptionally important difference. I am not putting forward a claim that the gender balance in physics is a 50:50 nature:nurture effect.”

The problem is that the discussion was not about whether we are warranted in claiming a 50:50 nature/nurture balance (I hate this particular statistic, in my opinion it is meaningless in many ways see footnote 2) but whether we are warranted in setting a default assumption that departments that are not 50:50 male:female somehow need to act to correct some culturally created imbalance.

“I certainly refer to that particular paper and the 50:50 ‘effect’ in “The natural order of things…” blog but nowhere in that blog did I make the claim that for physics the balance is 50:50. Indeed, I explicitly state that it is exceptionally difficult to determine the balance for any given system.”

You did indeed, though this is still more barking up the wrong tree whereby you are responding to my discussion of 50:50 male to female students as if I was discussing 50:50 nature/nurture.

The next bit I will respond to on nature/nurture even though I hope you see now this wasn’t the 50:50 I was referring to.

“Scientists (or, for that matter, anyone) should not have “expectations” nor stand behind hypotheses in the absence of evidence. So I don’t know what the balance is. Neither do you. Neither does Mason. I would argue that in the absence of evidence, and adopting a reasonable Bayesian approach, that a non-biased 50:50 would be the most appropriate starting point but that depends on our “priors”…”

Firstly, I don’t think adopting a 50:50 nature/nurture for physics uptake is a meaningful thing to do. So your uptake is 80:20 and you are going to work on the principle this is shaped 50:50 by nature/nurture. You employ a number of measures (open days for girls, explicitly targeting your recruitment to make them feel specifically most welcomed etc etc etc) and you get that figure to 60:40 M:F. So obviously now it isn’t still 50:50 nature/nurture……… yet the university down the road was already at 60:40 M:F and they had started off making the same initial assumption as you, that their 60:40 split WAS 50:50!

In any event, what would it even mean in terms of outcomes for the 80:20 split to be 50:50 nature/nurture. I don’t know if you watched my video yet regarding the way such entries function a little bit like first past the post systems but I am sure you would agree, regardless, that even if the 80:20 split could in some meaningful way be seen as resultant of 50:50 nature/nurture that removing the nurture bias would imply what? Simplistic reasoning would say 65:35 perhaps but first past the post systems do not port across so reasonably with small differences in preference porting across to potentially larger differences in outcome.

This was why I didn’t go here and why I wouldn’t, if I am honest.

I also have to comment on your remark concerning scientists and expectations. Evolutionary biology, it appears to me, is in an unusual evidential position when it comes to selection pressures. This is something I have discussed on video before. Of course this is a hoary old chestnut in the field of evo psych with Gould’s “Just so stories” a recurrent complaint against the field. However, the dirty little secret, which never seems to get an airing, is that the same complaint can be levelled against the whole field of evolutionary biology. It seems an almost inescapable issue that selection pressures are nigh impossible to empirically evidence after the event. In fact even DURING the event, outside of strict laboratory conditions where environmental factors are absolutely under control the very best we can do is to abduce the most likely selection pressure to account for an observed trait. When we are lucky only one clear candidate stands out and scant few people even notice the inductive evidential gap, let alone question it. Hominin evolution has proven rather less clear cut than the peacock tail, icefish circulatory system or the cheetah’s exceptional speed yet in all these cases the best we can empirically evidence is how such traits provide evolutionary fitness in the here and now, not the causal factors in the traits evolution.

So as abductive reasoning is deemed scientifically valid here I don’t see why it ought to be so easily waved away in the area we are talking about. We have every single member of our primate brethren showing behavioural dimorphisms on the one hand and on the other we have morphological dimorphisms unequivocally present in our own species demonstrating that behavioural selection pressures differ between the sexes. Isn’t by far the simplest explanation that we are like every other primate and that our behavioural gender differences are impacted by natural selection? How could they not be Philip? How is this less clear cut than the peacock tail or icefish rationalisations?

So your next couple of paragraphs got down to the brass tacks of physics specifically. I don’t have any specific point of disagreement with you here other than perhaps of conclusion. I tried to get across in my video that whilst my expectation would be for dimorphisms I don’t claim to be able to give any indication of extent, or even direction. One thing that the diversity of life on earth demonstrates is that evolutionary pathways are somewhat chaotic (as evidenced by the way in which some species of birds employ crazy levels of sexual selection, massively shaping male birds plumage, and others employ bugger all) and in complex environments such as all primates operate it is close to guesswork, it would seem, to second guess which environmental pressures are primarily altering the genotype and which are not. There is also, of course, a little more at stake with being wrong than there is with the peacocks tail J

So this is why my conclusion is resolutely to think as little as possible in terms of outcomes as we have no warrant whatsoever to presuppose anything in this regard. Nothing I say is to indicate anything other than to ward against holding up outcomes as if we have some yardstick to hold them against; that there is some place we can drop our datum (such as an expectation or goal of equality of outcome) that is anything other than entirely arbitrary (because we have good reasons to believe that both sexes will not be equally predisposed to things, even if we can say no more than that).

You mentioned to me a few months back that (was it in the hangout with Kristi where you mentioned me and said what questions you’d like to ask me?…..I can’t recall) girls now outperform boys in education quite markedly and are we to take it that this implies girls are more academically gifted (by which I mean to cover both intellectually gifted in relevant ways, more capable of concentrating (a definite possibility if you listed to primatologist Frans De Waals re working with female vs male chimps), more predisposed to the work involved or just more generally interested) and I responded to you somewhere that it may well be the case. But of course the point is that until recent history boys outperformed girls in higher education for what was obviously cultural reasons (the suppression of girls, their education and their reasons for being educated). I don’t believe that past history in any way discounts a dimorphic factor here (any more than, to use my favourite analogy here, you being able to steer your car to the right disproves your tracking pulling to the left) but it provides a reason to acknowledge that jumping to conclusions based on what we see at any point in time in any culture is every bit as foolish as focussing in on equality of outcome.

So my view is that if we are to pursue a more equal society we need to think as little as we practicably can about outcomes and a whole lot more focussed on attitudes. I know this is hard because, of course, outcomes are much easier to measure allowing us to feel we have achieved something positive (or at least achieved something). To my mind the way forward is a great deal more surveying of people at different ages in the education system (and beyond) to ascertain how they feel about the choices open to them, not in terms of how predisposed they feel to those options but whether they regard them as valid and acceptable choices for someone of their gender (or other demographic category). If not, why not? Are they viewing those choices as really for someone else……. even IF they were to have an interest in them? I think for me to achieve as much neutrality in this as possible is the gold standard (excepting that in some areas of study and society there may be such unavoidable benefits to diversity we may have sufficient reason to prejudice the process somewhat ie male primary school teachers or female police officers).

I know I have written a lot here Philip and I apologise for that. I am not trying to hide my position behind a sea of rhetoric. I suppose to sum up my position would be that when you tell me that physics in your university is split male:female 80:20 I pretty much shrug my shoulders as if that is supposed to tell me something meaningful but is not. My contention is that it really tells us very little in terms of how well we are serving the boys and girls who pass through your system. No more than if we are told it is 90:10, 60:40, 50:50, 20:80 etc etc. If instead you tell me that girls at age x are reporting that they feel physics is not a subject that is suitable for girls; that they worry they may not feel welcomed on a physics course; or that girls do not possess the right kinds of skills to study physics THEN I feel you have told me something that needs acting upon (and I know that in many cases people young and old do have such preconceptions and perhaps we can discuss how this relates to the fire service also in our hour because there are many fascinating aspects to that)

Last bit:

“but so too, I would argue, is claiming that whether or not male chimps prefer to play with trucks has something (anything) to do with preference/aptitude for physics”

If this refers to what I think it does then I think it is the rhesus monkey experiment (unless it has been done with chimps as well) and all this is really supposed to show is that constructionist claims that the large disparity in boy/girl toy choices, preferences and behaviours is as a result of parental behaviour shaped by society is almost certainly wrong (not totally wrong, as other research shows that parents DO steer children in the same directions, even when they are not consciously doing so).

I can’t really say exactly what Thunderf00t was trying to say. If you want to discuss his claims on Friday then that is fine but as his is usual way he leaves things hanging.

Ok, sorry again for writing so much. Be well,



1)      To add a little context, the discussion centred around a large survey that was measuring and ranking societies by ‘equality’. The metric they used was resolutely equality of outcome whereby if 50% of a particular field was occupied by women you got a perfect score in that category (in fact you got a perfect equality score if anywhere between 50-100% of those in a particular field were women but that is another story). The survey was being given as an example that you can objectively define equality and my objection to that was that its dependence on equality of outcome is by no means the only way to consider equality and that equality of opportunity is another example of a reasonable metric. The response quoted was, I think, supposed to amount to “well what grounds would you have to think that equality of opportunity would not automatically lead to equality of outcome, even in parenting and leisure?”

2)      The idea of putting a number on nature/nurture is something I’ve dwelled upon for a few years now. Certainly an area of interest of mine. I have certainly come to the conclusion it is something done more because people ask for a number than because the number has very much meaning. I made a response to Gary Edwards in my recent comments section on this and I think the second of the two points is very relevant here:

“I do have some sympathy with Moriarty with his convolutions, however. One of the possible confounding factors is that the way we steer boys vs girls in their behaviours could, in itself, be part innate rather than simply cultural. In other words, evolution is steering differentials in parenting behaviour (i have linked a couple of times in videos to a recent study showing chimp mothers socialise male and female chimps of around 6 months old differently). Things like that make it hard to pick apart. Another point of difficulty is that, when people ask to put a number on nature/nurture, the answer is as much a function of the level of the behaviour we prioritise as it is anything more concrete. Eating with a knife and fork is cultural; eating by moving the food to your mouth (as opposed to sticking your head in the trough) is almost certainly not. So any answer you give to how much of the way we eat is nature/nurture betrays as much or more of the level on which you are studying the behaviour as anything else.”

From: Moriarty Philip
Sent: 29 October 2016 07:50
To: ‘Noel Plum’
Subject: RE: Video now online

Hi, Noel.

Thanks for this. Absolutely no need to apologise for the lengthy and considered response – I’d expect nothing less. As you’ve said before, I think we’re reasonably close in our respective positions – although it’ll be good to tease out the question of “innate predisposition” in this particular context — and some of the apparent disagreement may be due to us “talking past” each other.

I’ll write a detailed response to your e-mail below as soon as I can but I have a stack of grant proposals to review this weekend (deadline on Monday) – and I’d also like to spend some time with my family! — so it’ll be next week before I can respond. I’ll do my utmost to get my response to you before our ‘hangout’ on Friday.

In the meantime, there are two points I’d briefly like to raise:

  1. I can’t speak for Kristi Winters. I’m not Kristi! I’d be happy to pass on your comments to Kristi and ask for her response, if you like?
  1. I’m especially interested in your response to this particular statistic, cited in one of my earlier e-mails:

Girls were almost two and a half times more likely to go on to do A-level physics if they came from a girls’ school rather than a co-ed school (for all types of maintained schools in England)”

All the best,



From: ‘Noel Plum’
Sent: 29 October 2016
To: Moriarty Philip <>
Subject: RE: Video now online

Hi Philip,

So quickly with regard to your two points:

1) Really i should have wrote at the time that I was, of course, not expecting you to answer on Kristi’s behalf, or justify or ‘second guess’ what she was saying. I simply used it as as an example of where i think people can admit to the epistemic issues in this area and them make assumptions or statements that DO amount to declarative and descriptive statements in this regard.

I can give you another example from the “It’s Different For Girls” document from which your ‘two and a half times more likely’ statistic comes from. In their recommendations they make it quite clear with their talk of ‘gender equity’ and setting targets with a view towards gender balance. They also suggest that those targets are set such as to be higher than whatever the present level of female uptake is for that category of school, so for independent single sex schools that would be increasing the number of girls over 27%.
Surely this is again based upon an assumption over nature/nurture, yet nowhere in the document could I find a single shred of evidence justifying it. As if the outcomes are not 50:50 ergo siniter cultural factors are at play.

2) So to move on to that figure i find it somewhat wildly misleading, if i am honest.

The report cites the figure as the second of its key points thus:

“Girls were almost two and a half times more likely to go on to do A-level
physics if they came from a girls’ school rather than a co-ed school
(for all types of maintained schools in England).”
and then this was the fourth of their points:
“For maintained schools in England, the positive effect of single-sex
education on girls’ choice of physics post-16 is not replicated in the
other sciences.”

I found those two statements, taken together (and they are fundamentally linked) misleading to the point of making me somewhat mistrust the neutrality of the document writers.

So reading both of those one would clearly imagine that the “positive effect” of single sex education was almost 2.5x and that this was absent in biology and chemistry. However, if you read the rest of the document they show figures for all three sciences for boys and girls, co-ed and single sex. What they show is that in every other case, switching from co-ed to single sex shows an uptick of 1.5-1.6x. So, in actual fact, the “positive effect” it is talking about is the differential between uptick between girls and boys, which is not 2.5x but the differential between physics for girls at 2.5x and physics for boys at 1.5x. All sciences for both genders saw hugs percentage improvements in uptake in single sex schools and these headline grabbing soundbites rather cynically misportray that.

So you wanted me to comment and what i will comment on is not that girls are almost 2.5x more likely to take physics at single sex schools but rather, why are girls 2.5x more likely and boys only 1.5x more likely. i don’t know , but here are two very different guesses (of the half dozen i can think of):

1) Girls feel somewhat intimidated to take physics in a co-ed school knowing that they will be outnumbered by boys in that classroom (and/or, for a sixth form, they are resolutely sick to the back teeth of the boys they know messing about in class and steer clear) and so pick subjects, like biology, where more girls will be present.

2) Schools like to balance classes and running an A level class with two pupils is generally seen as a non-starter. However, offering economics or law etc and then not running the class because only two people apply is much easier to justify than not running a physics A-level class. In a co-ed school the boys provide the numbers so no issue. however, in a single sex school if only 2% of pupils choose a physics A-level then that probably means a class of 1-3 pupils which is something schools will try to avoid (and I know this because my wife is a secondary school teacher and I see this exact thing happen in terms of trying to get enough numbers to make a course feasible)

Two very different alternatives. Even ignoring any other, i wouldn’t rule out 1 on the grounds that there is every possibility that girls feel the ways described here (I am sure many do) but I’d certainly ask you to take number 2 seriously as well. How many single sex schools could feasibly run a physics A-level course on 1.8% uptake without that flagging as a staffing/class size issue?


To be continued…


* In reference to the title of this post:  “I love alliteration. I love, love, love it. Alliteration just makes everything sound fantastic. I genuinely can’t think of anything with matching initials that I don’t like: Green Goddess, Hemel Hempstead, Bum Bags, Monster Mash, Krispy Kreme, Dirty Dozen, Peter Purves, Est Est Est, the SS1, World Wide Web, Clear Cache. 

1More the font they used, rather than what they did, which was pretty awful.”

Alan Partridge, from “I, Partridge” (HarperCollins 2012)