When I were a lad…

…we’d have to get up for a morning tutorial at ten o’clock at night, half an hour before we went to bed… complete all 171,117 problems in each of Schaum’s Outline series on partial derivatives, fluid mechanics, and vector analysis before breakfast… work twenty-nine hours in the undergraduate lab (and pay the lab organiser nineteen and six for the privilege)… and when we got back to the halls of residence, the Hall Tutor would kill us and dance about on our graves while reciting Chapter 1 of Feynman’s Lectures In Physics, Vol I. 

But you try and tell that to young people today and they won’t believe you…

[With all due credit to Messrs Cleese, Chapman et al.]


There’s yet another one of those irksome hand-wringing “…tsk, kids these days…articles in the Times Higher this week. Here’s a sample:

Even science students seem to struggle with mathematics. During my last few years of teaching in the UK, I was aggressively confronted by science undergraduates because I tried to engage them in an exercise that required them to calculate percentages. I was told that this was unreasonable because they were not, after all, doing a maths degree.

In twenty-one years of undergraduate science teaching (to date) I have not once encountered a student who baulked at the calculation of percentages. Granted, I usually teach physicists, but I’ve also taught chemists, chemical engineers, biomedical scientists, and pharmacy students. (I should note that I’m also not the least cynical academic teaching at a UK university.) The reactionary “eee by gum, they don’t know they’re born” whining is teeth-grindingly frustrating because it does a massive disservice to so many of our students.

Last week (as a Christmas, um, …treat) I decided I’d ask my first year tutorial group to attempt questions from an exam paper from 2001. I have done this for the last four or five years so it’s becoming a bit of a festive tradition. Here are two of the questions:

2001-Exam-p1_trimmed.jpeg

My tutees tackled these questions, and others, with quite some aplomb, despite the paper having been set when they were still in nappies. You may note that the questions involve mathematical (and physics) reasoning significantly more sophisticated than the calculation of percentages.

Deficiencies in the secondary/high school education system are too often lazily attributed to a lack of engagement or effort from students; that THE article is, of course, only the latest in a long line of Daily Mail-esque “We’re going to hell in a hand-cart” polemics in a wide variety of online and traditional forums [1]. In my experience, student ability or commitment has most definitely not dropped off a cliff at some point during the last two decades. Indeed, students are instead generally much more focused now due to the imposition of the £9250 per year fee regime; too focussed in some cases, many would say.

So let’s put the pearl-clutching to one side for a while and instead highlight the positives in higher education: the talents and tenacity of our students. In the midst of the madness that is Brexit, let’s not succumb to the lazy narratives and sweeping generalisations that characterise so much of public debate right now. After all, don’t we teach our students that critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning are core to their education?

[1] …or fora for those who are particularly pedantic and especially wedded to that fifties idyll of English  Latin as it should be, dammit. (Sorry, “damn it”. (Oops, sorry again, make that deodamnatus.))

 

Is physics boring?

This is a guest post by Hannah Coleman, a 2nd year physics undergrad here at Nottingham. (Hannah’s YouTube channel is well worth a visit for insights into student life and the trials and tribulations of studying physics.)


One of the more unusual aspects of being an undergraduate is that you are sometimes asked to attend staff meetings as a ‘student representative’. I’ve attended many meetings in my past life where people waffle on for a very long time about all things that should be done but never actually happen. Thankfully the Outreach Committee meetings in the School of Physics and Astronomy don’t fall into that category.

One of the agenda points today was feedback from the Diversity Committee. Our school really works hard to tackle diversity issues in physics, not just for our undergraduate courses, but also, and especially, for A Level physics. Data from 2016 indicates that only 1.9% of girls progress to A Level physics, while 6.5% of boys choose the subject. The other two sciences (and maths) have a much less pronounced gender split.

There are many complicated and subtle reasons why girls choose not to study physics at A Level and university, and these need to be countered very early on. However, one reason that was discussed more than briefly at today’s meeting was the idea that physics is boring. In a room filled with half a dozen physicists, this is a ridiculous notion. Yet I think it is worth considering.

I can only really speak from personal experience, but I have vivid memories of being routinely disappointed by science at school. I received most of my secondary education in South Africa under the IGCSE system, in a school that was mostly driven by money and results, but I had some really good teachers. There were only two male teachers and they taught art and geography, so I certainly wasn’t lacking female roles models in the sciences. I remember both of my maths teachers being very enthusiastic, and they made the classes fun, and the problems seem like puzzles. (I still managed to bag myself an E at IGCSE, but that’s a story for another time).

But the physics sucked.

Now, physics is a truly incredible subject, and the people who study it tend to be fairly passionate and enthusiastic. With the amount of time spent banging your head against a wall while trying to make sense of some problem or other, the enthusiasm is almost a prerequisite. So why is school physics so boring?

I think physics at school is robbed of almost everything that makes it such a fascinating subject. Velocity is boring. Potential energy is boring. Friction is boring. It can all be so incredibly dry when it’s void of any greater context and/or taught by someone who doesn’t particularly enjoy the subject. I remember looking forward to the one lesson of the year that had anything to do with astronomy, only to be hugely disappointed because we learnt about the solar system. Don’t get me wrong, the solar system is pretty incredible, but it felt like we learnt the same facts we learnt at primary school. Where were the quasars, the black holes and the expanding universes?

I saw this same disappointment countless times as a secondary school teaching assistant, and I tried my best to explain to those kids that all of physics was just as interesting if they were willing to dig deeply enough. But I think the curriculum probably lost them pretty quickly.

As someone who has returned to study later in life, I have often thought about (and over-analysed) the reasons I didn’t pursue physics after GCSE. The three things I come back to time and again are the perceived difficulty of the subject (‘it’s too hard for someone like me’), the lack of role models (‘people like me aren’t successful in the field’), and just how dull it was at school. The latter frustrated me the most as a kid, because it wasn’t a perceived fault within me. I knew my teachers could have been teaching us some really cool stuff, but I was worried it wouldn’t change at A Level or university and I’d be stuck doing something that didn’t enthuse me.

The fundamentals of physics don’t have to be boring (and I’m sure all of my lecturers would argue that they most definitely aren’t!). So what’s so special about friction? Why should I be interested in potential energy? Let’s face it, cars on inclined planes aren’t exactly the most fascinating things, but the underlying laws that govern how they interact have so many applications, and are actually kind of cool just by themselves. I hope that if we can show a few kids a different side to physics, then they might be more adventurous with their A Level choices.

20,000 Leagues under the THE

This monstrous tome arrived yesterday morning…

THE-rankings.png

I subscribe to the Times Higher Education and generally look forward to the analogue version of the magazine arriving each week. Yesterday, however, it landed with a fulsome house-rattling thud as it hit the floor, prompting Daisy, the eight year old miniature dachshund whose duty it is to ward off all visitors (friend, foe, or pizza), to attempt to shred both the magazine and the 170 page glossy World University Ranking ‘supplement’ pictured above that accompanied it.

I should have smeared the latter with a generous helping of Cesar dog food [1] and have her at it.

Yes, it’s yet another rant about league tables, I’m afraid. I’ve never been one to hold back on the piss and vinegar when it comes to bemoaning the pseudostatistics underpinning education league tables (be they primary school OFSTED placements or the leaderboards for august higher education institutions). I’m lucky to be in very good company. Peter Coles’ annual slamming of the THE rankings is always worth reading. (He’s on especially good form for the 2019 season.) And our very own Head of School, Mike Merrifield, has described in no uncertain terms just why university league tables are bad for you.

But this time round, and notwithstanding that WB Yeats quote I love so much [2], there’s going to be a slightly more upbeat message from yours truly. We need to give students rather more credit when it comes to seeing through the league table guff. They’re a damn sight more savvy than some imagine. Before I describe just why I have this degree of faith in the critical thinking capabilities of the next generation of undergrads, let’s take a look at a few representative (or not, as the case may be) league tables.

I’ve got one more year to go (of a five year ‘gig’) as undergraduate admissions tutor for the School of Physics & Astronomy at Nottingham. Throughout that time, I have enjoyed the healthy catharsis of regularly lambasting league tables during not only my University open day talks (in June and September) but for every week of our UCAS visit/interview days (which kick off again in mid-November).

I routinely point to tables like this, taken from the annual Graduate Market report [3]:

GraduateMarket2017-2018

Tsk. Nottingham languishing at #8. Back in 2014-2015 we were at # 2:

GraduateMarket2014-2015.png

Clearly there’s been a drop in quality to have slipped six places, right?

No. There’s nothing “clear” about that supposition at all. Universities and university departments are not football teams: it’s ludicrous to judge any institution (or department therein) on the basis of a single number.

Not convinced? Just sour grapes because Nottingham has ‘slipped’?

Well, take a slightly closer look at Table 5.8 directly above. Let’s leave the Nottingham “also-ran”s to one side, and focus on the top of the pops, Manchester. They’re an impressive #1 when it comes to employer perception…yet #28 in the Good University Guide. So which number do you prefer? Which has more credibility? Which is more robust?

Still have residual doubts? OK, let’s instead focus in on individual schools/departments rather than consider entire universities. (And don’t get me started on the university-wide Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF)’s gold, silver, and bronze medals…) Here’s where Nottingham stands in The Times’ Physics and Astronomy league table:

TimesTop10.png

Yay! Go Nottingham! In at #5 with a bullet. Up a whopping thirteen places compared to last year. (Incidentally, our undergraduate applications were also up by over 20%. This correlation between league table placement and application numbers may not be entirely coincidental…)

Wow. We must really have worked hard in the intervening year. Or perhaps we brought in “star world-class players” on the academic transfer market to “up our game”?

Nope.

So what was radically different about our teaching and/or research compared to the previous year that led to this climb into the Top Ten?

Nothing. Zilch. Nada.

Feck all.

Indulge me with one last example.  Here’s the most recent (2014) Research Excellence Framework ranking for physics…

REF2014.png

Nottingham is the only school/department to remain in the Top 5 over two rounds of this national research assessment exercise. (Last time round (in 2008) we were joint second with Bath and Cambridge). Again, Yay Nottingham!, right? Or does it perhaps speak rather more to a certain volatility in the league table placements because any peer review process like the REF is very far from being entirely objective?

Both Peter Coles and Mike Merrifield (among many others) have pointed out key reasons underpinning league table volatility. I’m not about to rehearse those arguments here. Instead, I’ll highlight a couple of rather encouraging Reddit threads I’ve read recently — and that’s not something I tend to write too often — related, at least partially, to Nottingham’s open days. The first of these Mike has very helpfully highlighted via Twitter:

 

There is indeed a lot to be said for brutal honesty and I am delighted that the pseudostats of league table placements are being questioned by open day audiences.

The responses to this rather snobbishly overwrought comment elsewhere on Reddit also made my heart sing:

Reddit.png

You can read the responses at the thread itself but I especially liked this, from ‘Matthew3_14’:

Reddit_response.png

I’d quibble with the “outside of the top 5ish” proviso (as you might expect), but otherwise “Matthew3_14” echoes exactly what I’ll be telling visiting applicants for our courses in the coming months…

If you like Nottingham, the rankings are irrelevant.

If you don’t like Nottingham, the rankings are still irrelevant.

Go to the place where you feel best.


[1] …for small, yappy-type dogs.

[2] “Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy that sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”

[3] Yes, it’s irritating that we now unblinkingly refer to students as a market. That’s a whole other blog post or five.

 

“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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=albBcYxMR3U

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 🙂

‘Noel’


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).

https://muircheart.wordpress.com/2016/10/22/welcome-to-the-bear-pit-when-public-engagement-goes-to-pot/

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,

Philip


 

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,

Noel


 

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): http://neilatkin.com/2016/07/08/improving-gender-balance-increasing-number-girls-level-physics/

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 — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zPhgc2IBj1M (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,

Philip


 

–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,

Noel

Footnotes:

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,

Philip


 

From: ‘Noel Plum’
Sent: 29 October 2016
To: Moriarty Philip <Ppzpjm@exmail.nottingham.ac.uk>
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?

Noel

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)

If I hadn’t failed my exams, I wouldn’t be a professor of physics

I started writing this post a little after 06:00 am this morning, the time at which schools and colleges were officially permitted to start releasing A-level results to hundreds of thousands of students across England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. I vividly remember the stomach-churning sense of dread thirty years ago as I awaited my Leaving Certificate results (the ‘Leaving’ is the Irish equivalent of the A-level system), and empathise with all of those students across the country biting their nails and pacing the floor as I write this.

By far the best advice for A-level students I’ve read over the last week was an open letter by Geoff Barton, Headteacher of King Edward VI school, to his Year 13 students, published in the TES on Tuesday: “Worrying about A-level results won’t help. They are out of your control“. Barton’s article resonated with me for a number of reasons, not least because I’m an undergraduate admissions tutor. It was the following paragraphs, however, that really hit home:

I know this because it happens each year, and it happened to me all those years ago when I failed one of my A-levels.

And what 30 years of experience has shown me is that if you end up not getting your first – or even second – choice of university place and have a tense couple of days on the phone sorting out new plans through the clearing process, then you will look back on this as something positive.

I ended up at a university I had never visited. It proved to be the best thing that happened in my education. And, like me, each year students come back at Christmas from their first term at university telling us that the unexpected change of plans has worked out to be brilliant.

Fortunately, I didn’t fail any of my Leaving Certificate exams — extreme exam failure was to come later on in my academic career — and I went on to start my BSc in Applied Physics degree at Dublin City University the following month. DCU was a small university at the time and I made my choice to go there not on the basis of prestige or national/international ranking  — in any case, the pseudostatistical, pseudoscentific, faux-quantitiative nonsense of university league tables hadn’t yet been spawned back in 1985 — but solely on the sense of excitement and, indeed, ‘belonging’ I felt when I attended a DCU Physics open day. (I’ll not bang on about the dubious value of league tables again, except to repeat that many A-level students show a healthy and laudable cynicism when it comes to the numerology of university rankings.)

Barton’s point about exam failure is particularly well made. I’ve been a personal academic and pastoral tutor for undergraduate students at Nottingham for the last eighteen years and it is always heartbreaking to have to tell a tutee that they have failed exams or, worse, can’t progress on their preferred course. This, of course, feels like the end of the world to them: how can they ever recover from what they see as abject failure?

So I tell them that I failed Year 3 of my four year BSc degree in Applied Physics at DCU.

Badly.

Appallingly badly.

For a couple of exam papers I did little more than write my name on the cover sheet. This was because I was rather more focused on the band I was in at the time, returning home to Monaghan at weekends to rehearse/play gigs and using my revision time to write riffs, lyrics, and songs.

Not clever.

But if I hadn’t failed my third year exams, and had to resit the year, then I am absolutely certain that I would have similarly drifted through my fourth year and graduated with, at the very best, a low 2.2 or, most likely, a 3rd class degree. Failing my exams, in the words of a band whose songs we used to cover at the time, hit me “like a battering ram”. I repeated 3rd year and went into my final year with many orders of magnitude more motivation and commitment. I graduated with a 2.1 (the pass mark I was ‘carrying’ from my third year due to the resits didn’t, let’s say, work in my favour) — enough to take up a PhD.

Less than a year into my PhD I knew I wanted to pursue a career in academia. (For the reasons discussed here).

I recount this story to tutees and students who have failed exams to echo Barton’s advice that it really isn’t the end of the world when things don’t go to plan. I certainly don’t recommend failing exams as an effective study skill or as an efficient strategy for career development. Nonetheless, a failed exam or two can often act as a catalyst to improve a student’s overall motivation and performance.

But that’s enough about me. My secondary school and undergraduate days are so far in the past that my memories of those times have a subtle reddish hue. Let’s instead hear from Jason Patrone, who graduated last month from Nottingham with a thoroughly well-deserved 1st class hons BSc in Physics (and is featured on the front cover of the School’s most recent newsletter):

I got a C, D and E grade at A-level. I then worked for six years in a job I didn’t find rewarding, before making the decision to return to university in 2011. I did the Foundation Year because of the `non-standard’ A-level grades, getting an overall mark of 81% for the year. I then transferred to the BSc and for each year of the degree I secured a 1st class mark.

The second year of the BSc I found the most challenging. Would I have put the same effort in, come the 2nd year crunch time, if I had sailed through A-levels? I doubt it.

Whether it means a kick up the arse for a bogey year/bad results, or facing the harsh realities of a crap job, any glimpse at what bad results leads to — or even just a blunt reminder that you didn’t do what you know you are capable of — works wonders.

Or, as Barton so eloquently puts it in his open letter, “the reality is that sometimes it’s the unexpected events in our lives that are the richest and most rewarding.

 

[Edit 13/08/2015, 11:03 — Drat. Forgot to mention that the cartoon above is from the wonderful xkcd and that it’s made available under a Creative Commons licence.]