The Natural Order of Things? Part III: The Song Remains The Same

It’s the same old story, same old song and dance, my friend…

Same Old Song and Dance, Aerosmith. Track 1, Side 1, “Get Your Wings” (1974). Perry/Tyler. Lyrics © BMG Rights Management


Zombie arguments are the lifeblood of the internet. Resistant to all counter-evidence, it doesn’t matter how often they’re shot down — they will arise (under a pale gray sky[i]) to live and breed again. The reason for their immortality is laid out in a classic post by David McRaney entitled The Backfire Effect[ii]:

The Misconception: When your beliefs are challenged with facts, you alter your opinions and incorporate the new information into your thinking.

The Truth: When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.

Or, as McRaney puts it further down that post:

The last time you got into, or sat on the sidelines of, an argument online with someone who thought they knew all there was to know about health care reform, gun control, gay marriage, climate change, sex education, the drug war, Joss Whedon or whether or not 0.9999 repeated to infinity was equal to one – how did it go?

Did you teach the other party a valuable lesson? Did they thank you for edifying them on the intricacies of the issue after cursing their heretofore ignorance, doffing their virtual hat as they parted from the keyboard a better person?

No, probably not.

The Backfire Effect in turn underpins Brandolini’s Law:

The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.

aka The Bullshit Asymmetry Principle.

The wholly biased presentation on gender bias in science given by Alessandro Strumia at the end of last month featured a veritable army of zombie arguments. These were, of course, unblinkingly accepted by those who share Strumia’s ideological bias:

Without wanting to get too ‘meta’ here, Damore’s “I’ve not seen anyone address the points this put-upon man has raised” claim is itself a zombie argument.  Each time an aggrieved and over-emotional gentleman decides to put across personal opinion, bias, and methodologically-unsound analysis of gender differences as “The Truth” (unfailingly covered up by The Big Bad Establishment[iii]), their ‘arguments’ are addressed and rebutted. As just one example, Strumia’s pseudoscience was dissected and demolished very quickly by his fellow particle physicist Jon Butterworth in a masterful blend of snark, satire and sharp insight.

You might, therefore, quite reasonably ask just why I’m returning to this theme. Hasn’t Strumia had his 15 minutes of fame and shouldn’t we just ignore him now, given that, for one, his = <Ncitations> pseudoscientific nonsense has been thoroughly rebutted? I have quite some sympathy for that view, I must admit, but I’m exhuming the corpse of Strumia’s pseudostats, and returning to the zombie fray, in order to provide a direct response to David Allen, who left a series of comments and questions under my “The Worm That (re)Turned” post on Strumia. David’s questions and comments were made in a very polite and genuine manner. He deserves a considered response. I’ll address David directly from here on in.

DA: So what explains the tendency for nations that have traditionally less gender equality to have more women in science and technology than their gender-progressive counterparts do? That question is posed here: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/02/the-more-gender-equality-the-fewer-women-in-stem/553592/

Unless there is a consensus of credible proof that the reason for low women numbers n STEM is that they are being discriminated against in some way, I personally will elect to believe it is down to their free choice and agency rather than down to victimhood.

[David’s full comment is here.]

First, David, this is the third in a trilogy of posts entitled “The Natural Order of Things?” that I’ve written[iv]. (Parts I and II are here and here, respectively.) I’m therefore going to be repeating myself to some extent. Again. But such is the nature of zombie arguments. Let’s go through the points in your comments one by one.

Before dealing with the gender equality article you cite, and subsequently getting into the weeds of Strumia’s beliefs, let’s deal with that “proof” word you use repeatedly in your comments. Science is not about proof; any credible scientist knows this. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve quoted Carlo Rovelli on this point (but then his statement about scientific ‘proof’ bears repeating ad infinitum):

The very expression “scientifically proven” is a contradiction in terms. There’s nothing that is scientifically proven. The core of science is the deep awareness that we have wrong ideas, we have prejudices. We have ingrained prejudices. In our conceptual structure for grasping reality, there might be something not appropriate, something we may have to revise to understand better. So at any moment we have a vision of reality that is effective, it’s good, it’s the best we have found so far. It’s the most credible we have found so far; it’s mostly correct.
“Mostly correct.” In other words, we look for evidence to support a particular model but we should always have the humility and insight to realise that science is not about certainty; that our understanding is provisional. (Religion, on the other hand, is all about certainty: this is the natural order of things as ordained by God (or gods.))

 

Being aware of the nature of scientific evidence is especially important when it comes to arguments about gender balance where, even if we leave aside the issue of ideological bias (in both directions), there is a wealth of conflicting data out there. In “The Worm That (re-)Turned At CERN” I mentioned the Heterodox Academy analysis of Damore’s cherry-picking of data for his “Google manifesto”. (Strumia took that cherry-picking approach and added quite a few more punnets on top. More on that later). I would suggest that you carefully read that HA analysis, David. Note that the evidence is not incontrovertibly pointing one way or another: there is a great deal of controversy and debate in the literature regarding many aspects of gender differences.

 

Any good scientist — or, indeed, anyone who, like yourself, would claim to be an open-minded “fence-sitter”, only interested in where the data leads them[v] — must take into account this conflict in the literature. Any credible analysis must start from a position of recognising the lack of consensus in the literature. This is not what Strumia did. He instead made definitive statements on the basis of both cherry-picked arguments and shockingly weak suppositions (of a type I would not expect high school students, let alone a scientist of Strumia’s position, to make. We’ll get to those.)

 

So, let’s leave aside the naive and simplistic idea that there’s a definitive deductive “proof” one way or the other. The key issue is the extent to which the scientific evidence supports a given claim. If there is insufficient evidence and/or a lack of consensus in the studies the very best we can be is agnostic. Anything else would be unscientific. I hope we can at least agree on this.

 

That out of the way, let’s turn to the article in The Atlantic you cited…

 

Issues with the Global Gender Gap Index

 

One key problem with so much of the online debate on gender differences — and just about any other subject under the sun — is that there’s a very strong tendency to rely on secondary sources, eg. news articles about a particular study, rather than consult the original source. This is often understandable because the source can be trapped behind a paywall, as in this case. (I’ve, however, released the paper cited by The Atlantic article into the wild via this link.) Nonetheless, it’s essential not to credulously swallow headlines hook, line, and sinker (especially when a significant fraction of the internet population do nothing more than read the headline. [vi]) Even going beyond the headline to read the article itself is, of course, no guarantee that the study has been accurately reported or that its nuances (and/or deficiencies) have been highlighted.

 

So let’s take some time to explore exactly what the graph of “Global Gender Gap Index vs % women among STEM graduates” discussed in the article actually means. First, what is the Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI)? How is it calculated, David? Do you know? I certainly didn’t until recently.

 

GGGI.png

 

I have a deep mistrust of all rankings and league tables because the methodology used to produce these is so very often pseudoquantitative and pseudostatistical at best, and complete nonsense at worst. And, lo and behold, what do we find when we take even the most cursory look at the origin of the GGGI figures? “In short, the country rankings in the Global Gender Gap Report are misleading at best and completely meaningless at worst.” I urge you to to take the time to read the analysis at that link for yourself, David. The author considers the life expectancy metric as just one example:

 

As the Index is rewarding a greater ratio, lower development values are rewarded (i.e. lower healthy life expectancy). Consequently, since the gender gap was the same in Denmark and Rwanda in 2016, but Rwanda had a lower life expectancy, they performed better on the Index (13 places better than Denmark). This problem becomes more and more serious when the overall level of development decreases and the gender gap increases.
Always look beyond the headlines, David. Question the methodology. Be sceptical — or, if you must, be skeptical — and think critically, rather than blindly accept an analysis because it’s got lots of numbers, and graphs, and looks “sciencey”. (More on this soon.)

 

Taken in isolation, there’s a distinct absence of error bars on that graph above. How are we supposed to know whether any of those relative country placements are statistically significant? It’s clear from the distribution of ‘data’ on the graph that a ‘resolution’ down to the third decimal place has been used to place the points. How is that justified? Moreover, it’s exceptionally weak to just do a naive linear regression without showing (or knowing) the effective uncertainty in each of the points. (But how would we accurately determine an uncertainty for each point?) Even then, because the methodology in generating the index is flawed, the numerical analysis is always going to be suspect.

 

To quote Pauli just slightly out of context, if the methodology is incorrect and the uncertainties aren’t accounted for, then any assertions made are not even wrong. And, as Einstein is (most likely apocryphally) reported to have said: not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted, counts. For example, here’s another set of reasons why you shouldn’t take the GGGI data at face value: Is gender inequality really so low in the Philippines? Or, if you want a broader discussion of why you shouldn’t place your faith in rankings in general, try this. (Or, in a higher education context, try this, this, or this).

 

Even, however, if we faithfully and naively take the GGGI data purely at face value (a la Strumia), then the Psychological Science paper to which you refer via that article in The Atlantic –you’ve read the original paper, right? — is hardly supportive of Strumia’s stance. To be clear, Strumia is arguing that there is an innate and immutable biological/genetic difference that underpins the difference in performance in physics for males and females. (He ludicrously use citation rates as an indication of mean IQ level and, thus, physics performance. Again, we’ll get back to that.)

 

You are making a slightly different, though related, argument to that Strumia attempts to put forward. Your focus in your comment above is on the question of discrimination vs “free agency”. It’s worth noting that Janet Shibley Hyde, to whom I refer at length in The Natural Order Of Things, and someone who is hardly ideologically aligned with Strumia’s beliefs, is quoted as follows in that article:

 

“Some would say that the gender stem gap occurs not because girls can’t do science, but because they have other alternatives, based on their strengths in verbal skills,” she said. “In wealthy nations, they believe that they have the freedom to pursue those alternatives and not worry so much that they pay less.”

Instead, this line of research, if it’s replicated, might hold useful takeaways for people who do want to see more Western women entering stem fields. In this study, the percentage of girls who did excel in science or math was still larger than the number of women who were graduating with stem degrees. That means there’s something in even the most liberal societies that’s nudging women away from math and science, even when those are their best subjects.

 

Like Shibley Hyde (and, indeed, the vast majority of those of us with interests in improving gender balance in STEM subjects), I am more than willing to accept that direct discrimination is not always necessary in order for women and girls to choose other career options or make non-STEM subject choices at school, respectively. (Or, to use your rather overwrought description instead, no “victimhood” is required.) However, just as it’s best to leave behind the naive idea that science provides us with definitive, deductive proofs, it’s also a good idea not to assume yes/no, black/white answers to everything. Uncomfortable, I know, but as Rovelli explains, science is not about certainty. (And before you assume that this is some new-fangled, social justice-enabled liberal definition of science, here’s the physicist’s physicist, Richard Feynman, on the same subject back in the seventies:

 

It is necessary and true that all of the things we say in science, all of the conclusions, are uncertain, because they are only conclusions. They are guesses as to what is going to happen, and you cannot know what will happen, because you have not made the most complete experiments.
So it’s not a binary state; there’s a spectrum of possibilities. And there is good evidence that discrimination occurs — as described here, here, and here, for example. (You could in turn, after a modicum of research, point me to the Ceci and Williams article that argued precisely the opposite. And I, in turn, could point you to the large number of deficiencies in Ceci and Williams’ work. Again, this is how scientific debate and discussion work.)

 

DA: So far, sitting on the fence in this matter, I’ve seen no point by point uniquivicable rebuttal of each of Strumia’s slides. Only supperfical attempts where someon interprets 1-3 slides differntly to Strunio and uses that interpretation to claim everything he said is fallacious.

 

Instead of a genine attempt at proving him wrong, what we see iare widespread claims of ‘poor arguments’, ‘shameful’ type comments followed by ad hominem attacks and the cherrypicking and vague assertions in the open letter itself. And of course suspension.

 

Strumia’s core premise is so flawed as to be laughable. His argument rests on the idea that citations scale directly not only with the quality of science but, remarkably, with intelligence. Let’s deal with the quality issue first. Citations are a measure of the popularity and “impact” of a paper; nothing more, nothing less. (How would you or Strumia “prove” otherwise, David? What’s your (normalised) metric for quality as distinct from impact?) A paper can attract a large number of citations for reasons other than the quality of the science (including the prestige of the group that produced the work). More worryingly, sometimes papers that are fundamentally methodologically flawed attract a large number of citations. (And before anyone suggests otherwise, let me state categorically that I am not suggesting that any of Strumia’s work is flawed, although he does seem to have spent quite some time fruitlessly developing explanations for what was a mundane noise blip (at 750 GeV), gaining many citations in the process.) Here are just two examples of which I’m especially familiar: stripy nanoparticles and nanoflares.

 

As Jon Butterworth alludes to, citations also need to be normalised to a particular (sub-)sub-field for them to be of any value at all. (And just how do we normalise to a particular field?) Citation patterns, and the scale of collaboration, vary dramatically across even just one discipline: solid state physicists tend to have much smaller numbers of co-authors on a paper as compared to the experimental particle physics community. Citation rates within the particle physics community (or, indeed, any community) alone will also depend on the “visibility” of a researcher in terms of their networking and collaborative activity. (Butterworth points to his involvement with the ATLAS and CMS collaborations). Moreover, the journal in which a paper is published makes a significant difference to the citation rate.

 

Attempts to balance quality and quantity of science for a given researcher via something called the h-index are similarly problematic. (See here for Philip Ball’s insightful critique of h-indices). I have referred in the past to this Popperian analysis of the h-index:

 

HIndexBollox.png

 

So, to cut a long story short (and I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of the issues with citation analyses), drawing a direct line from number of citations to scientific quality is clearly not a particularly scientific strategy to adopt. (If you’re going to argue otherwise, David, I’ll ask again: which metric do you use to disentangle impact from scientific quality in an entirely numerically and statistically robust manner? And what sort of measurement uncertainty would you place on that value?) As Jon Butterworth points out (see his footnote #2), Strumia’s “asymmetry parameter” re. citation rates also looks distinctly odd and far from evidence-based. (The definition Strumia uses does, however, helpfully align with his argument and ideology. Who’d have thunk it?)

 

That’s bad enough. What’s worse is that Strumia made an additional wild pseudoscientific leap to claim that there’s a direct link between IQ and the number of citations an individual scientist attracts. Even if we blindly accepted that citations and scientific quality go hand in hand — which we can’t; see above — Strumia drags out the classic zombie argument about the tails of the IQ distribution. This has already been critiqued by a number of authors — see my first The Natural Order Of Things post for just a few examples. More topically, however, shortly after Strumia’s mish-mash of stats, pseudostats, and groundless inferences made the headlines, the Institute of Physics published this. Here are the key points from the article of relevance to our exchange (although you should, of course, go to the primary source as well…):

 

The authors say that their study disproves the “variability hypothesis”, which suggests that male over-representation in STEM careers comes from a greater variability in grades among boys than girls (Nature Communications9 3777).

 

By analysing the grade distributions, the researchers found that the top 10% of grades in STEM subjects had an equal gender ratio, while non-STEM subjects were female-heavy. “Our results support greater male variability in academic performance, but they don’t support gender differences in variability as an explanation for gender differences in workforce participation because we find the smallest gender differences in variability in maths and science,” O’Dea told Physics World.
(Note that I dislike the use of the term “disproves” in the preceding quote for all of the reasons discussed above.)

 

Strumia not only runs with the “variability hypothesis”, he decides he’s going to arbitrarily cherry-pick the cut-off point he needs in order to “fit” his data. This is not, to put it mildly, credible analysis.

 

DA: If those in science are in the business of rebutting numbers and graphs (even ‘bad’ numbers and graphs) with insults, anger, and tears of hurt feelings, then it doesn’t engender confidence in the scientific commumity working dispassionatlely. It imples political bias rather than an honest quest for the truth – because what if that truth is ‘uncomfortable’? Scionce should not be concerned with feelings. What next – trigger warnings outside conferences?

 

Like you, I see hurt feelings, anger, and an overwrought, over-emotional, and unscientific analysis. We differ on the source, however. Strumia’s presentation was heavy on petulance, arrogance, and whining: “I’ve got more citations. Why wasn’t I given the job? Why? It’s just not fair. Physics was invented and built by men. Men, I tell you.” It is beyond unprofessional to use a conference presentation to make personal attacks and whine about failing to get a job. Strumia not only insulted a colleague, he insulted an entire gender. He’s clearly not on an “honest quest” for the truth. If he were, he’d have presented a much less biased and cherry-picked analysis, and spent rather more time thinking carefully about the (lack of) validity of nonsensical assertions like IQ scales with <Ncitations>.

 

On the other hand, I see in the community response a professional and sober rebuttal of Strumia’s claims. (But a bit of a naff URL, admittedly…)

 

It is rather naive, David, to claim that the scientific process isn’t concerned with “feelings”. I know that’s the myth but Strumia’s impassioned/overwrought (delete to taste) presentation was driven, at least in part, by his emotional reaction to being passed over for a job. Similarly, science is a social enterprise. We are not emotionless, wholly objective automatons free of all external and internal biases. Peer review, for one, is a messy, all-too-human process. To argue otherwise betrays a deep lack of understanding of just how science progresses. (See “The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but…” for more on this.)

 

DA: Thank you for the link to David Smith. David is doing what we all do. He starts with an opinion, and sorts the millions of related facts into a hierarchy, with those at the top placed there to support his view. Then challenging any contrary opinions while accepting supporting ones.

…which is exactly what Strumia did. But somehow Strumia’s analysis is robust while Smith’s rebuttal isn’t? (Are you quite sure that you haven’t fallen off that fence, David…?) Strumia made assertions. Smith went through those assertions and provided counter-evidence. That’s how scientific debate works.

DA: For example point 6. “If you are interested in whether there are innate gender differences between male and female brains, then you must read neuropsychologist Lise Eliot, who refutes the dominance of biology concluding socialization is vital.”

So, Lisa Elliot is irrefutable? Are there no eminent biologists out there claiming the opposite?

Um, who said that Elliot is irrefutable, David? Point me to where David S has said that? I can’t speak for David Smith but I, for one, have been at pains before to highlight both sides of the argument. I’ve spent quite a bit of time reading Baron-Cohen and Pinker (among others). I would, however, ask you in turn to do me the courtesy of reading Angela Saini’s “Inferior” and Cordelia Fine’s “Testosterone Rex” and “Delusions of Gender” before responding. I have done my homework for this post.

DA: I want you to know that I don’t agree with a lot of what Strumia says. But just because his reasoning on, say, IQ and number of citations is probably way off, it doesn’t mean that everything he says is way off.

Thanks for this, David. I’m a little confused, however. You argued above that Strumia produced a robust, quantitative analysis and that he should be listened to on that basis. Yet the entire premise of that ‘quantitative’ analysis was based on his faulty reasoning between IQ and citation numbers. If you agree that his reasoning was faulty, what is it that you think isn’t “way off”? And on what basis do you think that, given you feel his quantitative reasoning is “probably way off”?

DA: 1) I believe that someone’s race, sex, religion etc should not be a factor in what someone is allowed to say, or as a consideration in whether they get a job or not.

2) Therefore I do not believe in positive discrimation since it involves negative discrimination against others. If person A is using sex in their decision to hire someone, they are also using it not to hire somone else.

3) I do not believe in retaliation in the form of suspension or job loss, or verbal/written lynch mobs of 150 people against 1 person because that person (male or femail) challanges allowed norms. Apart from in extreme cases.

4) I do not believe in group A deciding what is moral and then conveniently claiming they are morally superior to group B. There are some exceptions of course.

5) I believe that femails have the same intelligence, (and in the West) the same potential and agency as males, and that in general if they are not in STEM it’s because they don’t want to be. There are more women than men in universities and unless someone can demonstrate the opposite, my presumption is that they are choosing the qualifications they are taking.

6) I don’t believe in witch hunts, trial by twitter, or labelling a person’s indentity as x or y because they said a few things. In the rational world there is big difference beween saying ‘that was a misogynist remark’ and ‘you are a misogynist’.

 1) Hmmm. So a fully committed, evanegelical creationist should be employed to teach cosmology and/or evolution? They disclose this at interview and say that they will teach science according to their belief system or not at all. Should they (a) be employed, and (b) have free rein over what they cover in that course? Or let’s say that, as admissions tutor, I am asked to give a talk to A-level students at a Catholic school and I decide to turn up there in a Slayer “God Hates Us All” T-shirt, or, worse, something emblazoned with a Cannibal Corpse album cover/title (or anything from this delightful list). Or I give a talk along the lines suggested here. I should be free to say whatever I want under whatever circumstances? Really?

2) Positive discrimination of the type you describe is unlawful in the UK.

3) I agree. See my original post. Dismissal helps foster that victimhood/martydom mentality for those like Strumia and Damore who will claim they were silenced for speaking “The Truth” despite their version of the truth being rather ideologically-skewed and easily rebutted. My suggestions for alternative strategies are outlined in this response to my colleague Anne Green.

4) This happens with any in-group vs out-group dynamic. “The right” is just as guilty of this as “the left”. See, for example, the moral outrage re. lampooning Trump, “taking the knee“, or the general patriotic correctness of the right.

5) But there are social biases everywhere. I, for one, would much rather see greater numbers of men involved in primary school teaching and in other so-called “nurturing” professions. On what basis are those decisions being made? If you say they’re genetically/biologically hard-wired to the extent that the sexually dimorphic signal outweighs the environmental (i.e. societal) influence, I will ask you — as I have asked so many others — to provide me with conclusive evidence that this is the case. Again, I would suggest you read Saini’s and Fine’s books, to which I refer above.

6) I agree.

I’m glad we could finish on a point of agreement, David. I already alluded to the point you make in the final paragraphs of “The Worm That (re-)Turned...“. There is often a rush to judgement and it is too easy to damn someone for a few hasty or misinterpreted comments. (I enjoyed Jon Ronson’s Shamed, which examines this social dynamic in a number of situations.) In Strumia’s case (and, before him, Damore), however, his were not a few hasty, off-the-cuff remarks. He designed an entire talk around an ideologically-biased and unscientific premise. We all make mistakes. To err is human. But it’s how we change our behaviour in the light of those mistakes that’s key.

Errare humanum est, sed in errare perseverare diabolicum…


[i] And today’s metal reference is*…
(*Aerosmith aren’t metal.)

[ii] I may have occasionally referred to this exceptionally important piece in previous posts.

[iii] See also #34 on this list. Oh, and #5. And #28. And #33. And #36.

[iv] Currently a trilogy of three. (This, in Adams-esque fashion, may well change…)

[v] Loaded terms like “victimhood” do not, however, lend credence to your claim to be totally unbiased.

[vi] …or do they?

Debunking sexist pseudoscience: A masterclass

OK, Mr. Young. Here you go. Every single one of Strumia’s breathtakingly vacuous and faux-scientific arguments categorically dissected and demolished: https://www.particlesforjustice.org/ 

Now, how about you return the favour? The next time you start clutching your pearls and feverishly scribbling some tired, cliched, uninformed, hyberbolic shite about how “leftists”/”cultural Marxists”/”the PC brigade” are taking over our universities and indoctrinating our children — “Won’t someone think of the children?!”  — why not do a modicum of homework? Don’t credulously believe every piece of bad science you’re told just because it neatly aligns with your ideological prejudices.

The Worm That (re-)Turned at CERN

“The dateline is 2012. England is in the grip of a new regime of terror. Traditionally a land of great heroes and brave statesmen — Nelson, Wellington, Disraeli, Churchill – Britain now laboured under the yoke of a power guaranteed to strike fear into the hearts of all men. The country is now being run by women.”

That’s how The Two Ronnies mini-series The Worm That Turned kicked off all the way back in 1980. I realise, however, that this, um, lost gem of eighties British TV may have passed some of you by. Let me rectify that right now. Here’s the first episode. Sit back and enjoy (for want of a better term) this classic take on gender politics by those masters of subtle-as-a-sledgehammer satire…

The Two Ronnies was a firm favourite in our household as I grew up during the 70s and 80s. The Worm That Turned ran for eight consecutive weeks, although my memory ain’t what it once was and I assumed that it had gone on for much longer. It certainly seemed that way at the time…

Much more amusing than the series itself, however, is that, almost forty years after it was broadcast, there’s a certain type of gentleman for whom the premise of The Worm That Turned is less hackneyed eighties comedy and much more a chillingly accurate prediction of the sub-Orwellian dystopia that he and his poor, repressed, downtrodden mates now have to endure. The comments under that YouTube video are comedy gold…

YouTubecomments.png

I was reminded, and not for the first time in recent years, of The Worm That Turned as I followed the reaction to Alessandro Strumia‘s overwrought, poorly-researched, and cliche-ridden diatribe about women in physics. For those of you who haven’t been following the story, in a nutshell this is what happened: Prof. Strumia stood up at the 1st Workshop on High Energy Theory and Gender  and delivered a talk bemoaning the drive towards greater gender balance in physics. He trotted out the same zombie arguments about male vs female ability/aptitude/preference for physics that have been addressed and/or debunked time and again. (More on this below but if you’re not aware of Angela Saini’s Inferior and/or Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender and Testosterone Rex, put down this blog post right now and go and do something less boring instead (as another staple of 80s British TV used to put it). Read Saini’s and Fine’s books).

Tellingly, and not entirely unexpectedly, Strumia’s slides (which are here) include mention of cultural Marxism so one might guess that a certain Canadian YouTube guru (and social scientist [1]) inspired at least a little of the “woe is men” pearl-clutching. Just like James Damore before him (another fan of the ubiquitous Canadian guru), Strumia wears the mantle of the ever-so-courageous rational scientist “speaking truth to power” and just “telling it like it is”, when, in fact, and despite his loud claims to the contrary, he’s wedded to a glaringly obvious ideology and unscientifically cherry-picks his data accordingly. In Strumia’s case, there’s also a pinch of seething resentment mixed in. (But again, that’s hardly new. Gentlemen of Strumia’s persuasion tend to get very distressed and emotional about women getting above their station; anything from a Ghostbusters movie to female superheroes featuring on tins of pasta can set them off…)

Molyneux

The Guardian, The Times, The Independent, the BBC, and the New York Times, among very many other august publications, have covered the Strumia story in depth. It’s worth reading those articles, of course, but I would also take the time to trawl the Twitter thread below for the lowlights of Strumia’s talk…

Moreover, you should read Jess Wade‘s article in New Scientist.

[Update 10:41 03/10/2018. See Joachim Kopp’s comment below (and my response) re. Jess’ initial tweet above.]

Strumia’s arguments are tediously predictable and totally derivative. Like Damore, his cherry-picking of the data is at astronomical levels. Heterodox Academy, not exactly a left-leaning organisation, laudably took a detailed overview of the literature on gender differences hot on the heels of the furore about Damore’s “manifesto”. I recommend that you take a look at those HA articles; note that the literature is very, very far from unequivocal on the matter of gender differences.

Strumia is clearly a well-cited scientist — he was not exactly shy about highlighting this during his talk — so he must know that any useful review of the literature should be well-balanced and cite both sides of any controversy. But he made no attempt to do this during his talk at the CERN workshop. Instead, he behaved like any tabloid hack, evangelical MRA YouTuber, or pseudoscientist keen to play to the gallery, and completely skewed his sampling of the literature so that he selected only those publications that aligned with his ideology. That’s not how we physicists do science. (Well, at least it’s not how we squalid state physicists do science…)

I’ve been down this road before. Many times. I wrote a post titled The Natural Order of Things a couple of years back to rebut the arguments of those, like Strumia, who misleadingly present the literature on gender differences as cut-and-dried in their favour.  And yet, instead of attempting to address the points I make in that post, those who contact me to complain about my views on gender balance instead trot out the received wisdom ad nauseum, with no attempt to revise their stance in the light of new data or evidence. (With that potent mix of arrogance and ignorance that is the signature characteristic of so much internet traffic, they cite The Blank Slate or Baron-Cohen’s work, assuming, on the basis of no evidence at all, that I have yet to read either.)  I’ll quote Philip Ball yet again: “It’s as if they’re damned if they are going to let your actual words deprive them of their right to air their preconceived notions.”

Apart from the cherry-picking, there’s also the inadvertent comedy of Strumia’s credulous and uncritical methodology to savour. He assumes — on the basis of what evidence? — that citations scale directly with IQ levels, assuming a nicely arbitrary “6 sigma among 10^9 persons” (why 6 sigma? why 10^9?) criterion to ‘fit’ his data. Leaving aside his plucked-from-thin air” assumptions here, there’s a rather more robust analysis of the “tails of the distribution” argument from Janet Hyde and Janet Mertz in their analysis of gender, culture, and mathematics performance.

Why would IQ be immutable? Or independent of environmental influences? And why would citations be solely dependent on IQ? Do prestige, track record, and/or serendipity not play a role? And this is before we even get to the question of the extent to which citations are a measure of scientific quality in the first place. Not everything that counts can be counted…

I’m not going to rehearse, (re-)repeat and rehash the arguments here. They’re covered at length in both The Natural Order Of Things and in a stream I did shortly after the furore about Damore’s manifesto hit:

The slides I used for the discussion in that stream are here. I’ll just highlight one slide in particular:

MathsPerformance.png

On the left hand side of that slide are the distributions of eighth grade girls’ and boys’ mathematics scores (in the traditional — well, recently traditional — blue and pink, respectively) for the 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Unlike Strumia’s naive, unquestioning, and simplistic argument that males “universally” feature in the tails of IQ distributions, what we see here are strong geographical differences in maths ability [2]. While boys in Bahrain outperform girls in the tail of the distribution towards higher maths scores, in Tunisia the situation is reversed, whereas in the Czech republic the mark distributions overlap. So, far from having an innate, immutable, “hard-wired” distribution, there are strong geographical variations.

Similarly, and as discussed elsewhere in that stream above, there are distinct temporal variations when it comes to male vs female performance in maths over the years. It is rather difficult to reconcile these geographical and temporal variations with Strumia’s argument that everything can be reduced down to innate male vs female aptitudes and/or preferences. (That’s not to say that there aren’t real differences in male and female brains…)

Despite disagreeing entirely with Strumia’s lazy ‘analysis’, however, I have deep qualms about just how his comments and views are being addressed. Suspension (or, worse, dismissal) plays directly into the martyrdom mindset that underpins and strengthens the popularity of Peterson, Damore et al. (“Those feminazis are quashing free speech.”)  Strumia is in a much different position to Tim Hunt, for example. The latter — despite loud, uninformed protestations (that continue to this day) about a man “losing his livelihood” — was retired at the time he made his misjudged comments at a science journalism conference in Korea back in 2015. Hunt was, in fact, an honorary professor at UCL (and, by definition, was therefore not paid by the university). Strumia is not retired, although some are strongly of the opinion that he should be retired forthwith.

Instead of outright dismissing the man, Strumia’s views should be dissected and dismissed for what they are: hyperbolic, over-simplistic, cherry-picked polemic more befitting a politician than a scientist. His arguments, such as they are, should be taken apart and used as, for one, an example of the lazy lack of appreciation and/.or cherry-picking of the wider literature that is the hallmark of the “Men just are hard-wired to be better at science. Deal with it, ladies” mindset. Let’s not play directly into his and others’ hands by fuelling the narrative that they are oh-so-brave free speech warriors silenced by the “feminazi establishment”.  Their fevered imaginations can conjure up scenarios much worse than Messrs Barker and Corbett ever did…

Update 09:29 03/10/2018: Just been sent a link to Jon Butterworth’s biting and brilliant take on Strumia’s attack of the vapours. Thoroughly recommended.


 

[1] Yes, psychology is a social science. It’s always chuckle-worthy to hear fully paid-up members of the Cult of Peterson whine incessantly about the social sciences while simultaneously failing to appreciate just where psychology lies on the academic landscape. (And while we’re on the subject, psychology is hardly the most robust of the sciences in terms of reproducibility and credibility. Peterson really should follow his own teachings (and parables) and spend a little more time considering the beam in his own discipline’s eye before whining about the mote in others’…)

[2] I should note that, despite some physicists’ biases to the contrary, ability at math(s) is not the be-all-and-end-all when it comes to intelligence.

Jess Wade: Scientist on a Mission

I got an e-mail with a link to an article in today’s Guardian about the irrepressible and inspiring Jess Wade just before I went to get my afternoon cup of tea. I’ve rushed back, tea in hand, to quickly blog and say how delighted I was to see Jess’ efforts recognised not only by my favourite newspaper — I know, I know, typical sandal-wearing, muesli-munching, beardy, lefty, Cultural Marxist, Guardian-reading academic [1] — but also by the recent award of the Institute of Physics’ Daphne Jackson prize.

As the Guardian article describes, Jess is a postdoc working in the field of organic electronics at Imperial College. I have been aware of Jess’ work and her efforts in public engagement and the promotion of physics to girls for quite some time but most recently met her at a SciFoo ‘unconference’ at the Googleplex, Mountain View, CA (which was …checks diary…almost a year ago. Wow. Time flies.) Jess led a session on gender balance and diversity in science and it was easily the most energetic and engaging session of the entire conference (and that’s saying something, given the competition).

I had brought a copy of Angela Saini’s Inferior with me to read on the plane to SciFoo. Inferior, a t-shirt of whose cover Jess is proudly wearing in the photo accompanying the Guardian article, was deservedly Physics World’s Book Of The Year 2017. (Here’s Jess’ review). Jess had brought about ten copies of Inferior with her to the SciFoo event which she distributed for free at the session! (I should stress that Jess is neither on commission nor did she have a grant from which to buy the books — she bought them with money out of her own pocket.)

I am pleased to say that Jess will be coming to Nottingham Physics & Astronomy later this year to give a talk on her research and that Angela Saini will be speaking to the Science Faculty here for International Women’s Day 2019.

Now, usually the last place you want to spend any time online is below the line, even when it comes to The Guardian’s comments section (as Philip Ball has pointed out). But it’s worth scanning down through the comments under Jess’ article for comedy value alone. The same tedious, uninformed, unscientific, zombie ‘arguments’ about gender balance that are rebutted so well in Inferior (and in Cordelia Fine’s work) are trotted out by rather disgruntled individuals who have a particularly buzzy bee in their bonnet about the natural order of things. I particularly liked this exchange:

JessCiF.png

I’d really like to hope that JohnJNorris’ comment up there is a pitifully weak attempt at a joke. But given the below-the-line commentary that accompanies virtually any article on gender in science, it’s not against the odds at all that JohnJ is being deathly serious.

“Outrunner’s” riposte is priceless in any case…

[1] OK, most of that’s true. But not the sandals. Definitely not the sandals. I’ve never worn sandals in my life. *shudder* And, to be honest, I’m really not quite certain what a Cultural Marxist is. Or does. But, apparently, academia is absolutely infested with them.

How to sociably debate social justice

or Why We Should Feed The Trolls.

The following is a fascinating guest post by Hugh Dingwall. Hugh, aka “Objective Reality”, has posted a number of intelligent, perceptive, and compellingly-argued comments under previous posts at “Symptoms…”. I was very impressed by the quality of his writing, and by the careful manner in which he laid out his arguments, so I invited him to write a guest post. That post is below. I have never been happier to be told I’m wrong.  

[Note that (i) the title (and sub-title) above are due to me, not Hugh, so any criticism about the titling of the piece should be directed to me; (ii) Hugh’s points about safe spaces and no platforming are particularly timely in the context of this recent debate in academia: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/chicago-academics-hit-back-safe-spaces %5D


First off, thanks to Phil for inviting me to do this guest post, which I intend to begin by disagreeing with him about a couple of things.

Phil’s made it clear in a couple of different places, that he doesn’t agree with the idea of no-platforming (or blocking people), or with safe spaces. I get his reasons (and I think they come from a good place) but I think he’s wrong.

To deal with safe spaces first, this concept is usually portrayed by “SJW-slayers” as a way for a person to avoid concepts that challenge them, and this is, I think, what Phil (rightly) disagrees with. The problem is that that’s not what they are, at least in the forms that I’ve encountered them. The “safe spaces” I’ve come across have been areas, particularly on a university campus, where a marginalised group can go and (quite literally) be safe. The best example of this is the Women’s Room at my old university, which was established because there were a number of behaviours that male students engaged in that made female students feel quite (justifiably) unsafe. Since it was one room, with some paper resources if you needed them and a free phone (I know because my girlfriend of the time called me from there on a number of occasions) you could hardly use it to shelter your precious worldview. You could however, use it to call your boyfriend to come and pick you up when you’d had a distressing encounter with an arsehole at the student pub. This kind of safe space is, in my opinion, quite hard to argue against unless you’re the aforementioned pub arsehole – and is more commonly what defenders of safe spaces have in mind.

As regards no-platforming (the practice of preventing people from speaking on campuses because of their views), and relatedly blocking people you can’t be bothered with on social media, I again see Phil’s point. On the other hand, I remember how angry I was when my university played host to an Intelligent Design proponent. The issue wasn’t that my ideas were being challenged, or even that I thought this guy would convince anyone. I was angry that money (MY money – we have to pay for university in New Zealand (which this guy hadn’t when he attended but that’s another angry story)) had been spent paying him to lecture, when it could have been given to someone, even someone just as controversial, whose views weren’t provably false. It was an hour of my life I wasn’t going to get back, and the man had been paid for wasting it. He wasn’t going to convince anyone who wasn’t a closet-Creationist, and most infuriatingly, he didn’t even understand the theory of evolution that he claimed to debunk. (I should mention at this point that I dropped out of university, and while I was attending I was a Classics major – and I still had a clearer understanding of the theory than this guy who purported to be able to prove it wrong.)

To extend this logic to blocking people on social media, I think it’s important to know when a conversation has reached its useful end. I understand the principle that it’s good to be exposed to views you disagree with, but firstly, there’s no amount of David Icke I can read that will convince me that giant reptilians are a real non-metaphorical problem in the world. There’s a point past which a conversation with an Icke-believer stops being useful as a result. (The reader is invited to extend the logic to situations where political or philosophical disagreement devolves into mere fountains of bile). Moreover, I think that people whose goal is to harass or bully their intellectual opponents often use this idea (that you should always be open to defending your ideas from opposing views) as a way to try and argue that you owe them a continued conversation (even once they’ve begun abusing you or bringing in their followers to try for a dogpile) and that refusing them that conversation is a sign of cowardice. Which is bullshit – especially if you’re someone whose fame and/or status as a member of a despised group makes you a target for nastier-than-usual or literally-dangerous attacks, or if your opponent is a well-established internet presence who can call on a literal horde of faceless howling zealots to shout you down.

Finally, I’m not that keen on Rush. Though I acknowledge their technical skill, I’ve always been more of a psychedelia guy, and I have a special place in my heart for the British folk-rock explosion of the 70s (go look up Joe Boyd, and listen to basically everyone he produced, then work sideways from there, also the Grateful Dead, and Tom Waits).

[Editor’s note: Hugh’s criticism of Rush here is clearly an uncharacteristic lapse of judgement. He redeems himself by mentioning Tom Waits (whose, um, unique music I got to know via the fantastic Primus), so, much as it pains me, I’m willing to overlook the lack of enthusiasm for Rush. I’m sure Hugh will come round to their unique charms in the end.]

As you can see from the above, it’s entirely possible to disagree with people while remaining entirely civil. More importantly, it’s possible to disagree with people while acknowledging that they make good points, or have good reasons for the views they hold. (Reasons can be good even if you think they’re incorrect.) In philosophy, this is called “the principle of charity”. The idea is that to avoid strawmanning, you should ensure that you’re engaging with the strongest possible form of your opponent’s argument, given the things they’ve actually said. I find that it also helps to ask what people mean if you’re not sure, so you don’t end up talking at cross purposes.

Which brings me to the various discussions I had in the comments of Phil’s blog post “The Faith And Fables of Thunderfoot”.

The style of discussion I’ve indulged in above (and attempted to explain thereafter) is the way I talk on the internet if I’m interested in getting to the bottom of what people think, or making a genuine point. I’ll talk about the points that got discussed in that comments section in a bit, but first I want to talk about this style of discourse as opposed to trolling. See, I agree with Phil that trolling, while inherently somewhat mean-spirited, can be an art in and of itself (and some examples can be truly transcendent). However, the purpose of trolling is to keep your victim(s) expending energy for your amusement (and that of any onlookers). It’s not a form of argumentation, and if you put more energy into it than your victims do, you are a very ineffective troll. This is why I call bullshit on the likes of Thunderfoot and Sargon of Akkad when they claim to be “just trolling” as a way to avoid defending their arguments and/or actions. If they are trolls, then firstly we have no reason to accept their arguments as anything other than deliberately vexatious nonsense, and secondly (given the average length of their videos) they are very bad trolls indeed.

Pleasingly, there wasn’t much of that kind of conversation in the comments at Phil’s blog. Instead, two major points seemed to come up:

  1. People wanted to know how we could be sure that sexual dimorphism wasn’t to blame for the lack of women in STEM fields (this was the initial disagreement between Phil and Thunderfoot which led to the email exchange reproduced in the blogpost – I recommend going and reading it if you haven’t (otherwise some of this post may be quite confusing).
  2. People seemed nervous of adopting what might be seen as “feminist” positions, for fear that this might somehow be seen as implicating all men in a mass act of malice against all women, or that it might lead to them inadvertently endorsing some position that they deeply disagreed with.

To deal with the first point first (a novel idea, I know), the short answer is that we can’t. We can know very little for sure. On the other hand, it seems very unlikely that sexual dimorphism is to blame for women’s career and study choices. Phil goes into this in detail in this post here, but I’m not an academic (I’m a sound technician) and I want to talk about some other stuff as well, so I’ll just summarise the main points.

First off, I need to acknowledge that it’s not an inherently silly idea that sexual dimorphism might be to blame, as humans are a moderately sexually dimorphic species. Men* tend to be bigger, stronger, and hairier than women, who tend in turn to outlive them. It’s not totally outlandish to suggest that there may be brain differences as well. However, the evidence doesn’t bear this out, and as Phil points out in both the blogposts I’ve linked to, it’s very very difficult to decouple social factors from purely biological ones in humans. The evidence for social factors influencing women’s choices, on the other hand, seems to be pretty strong. It’s easily provable that society used to be much more sexist than it is right now. Most antifeminists would even agree with this proposition. I think it’s quite reasonable to argue that the recent (as in, last 50 years or so) influx of women into traditionally male fields is more likely to stem from an increased acceptance of women doing these kinds of jobs and studying in these fields than it is to be a result of evolution.

Which brings me to another point – there were a good number of appeals in the pro-sexual-dimorphism camp to what we might call “naturalistic” explanations, including a good deal of recourse to evolutionary psychology. Now, my good friend Daniel Copeland is convinced that there’s some merit in evopsych, and he is a very intelligent guy and makes a good case for the bits he supports. However, evopsych is probably one of the most abused theories I’ve ever seen. If you’re not familiar with it, the idea is that you can find explanations for bits of human behaviour in our evolutionary past, and sometimes you can discover those bits of evolutionary past by, for example, observing other primates. There are two problems with this – the first is that people who don’t fully understand it tend to just point to an aspect of human behaviour they wish to claim is immutable, and then invent an “evolutionary-sounding” reason for it. The more fundamental problem is that we’re not other primates, and even if we were, the world of animal sexual dynamics is hugely diverse.

There was a tendency in the early days of biology to assume that most animals would follow the family/relationship structure that those early biologists considered “natural” – dominant males, submissive females, and so on. The actual picture is much more complicated, and as I noted, we’re not other primates – we’re humans. Our whole thing is using technologies (including social technologies) to overcome our natural limits. That’s how come my wife can see, and my mother can hear. That’s how come we developed hugely complex social structures that let us live stacked on top of each other in cities without all killing each other (most of the time). There’s no reason to assume that even if there were a natural predisposition that led women to shun certain fields, we would allow ourselves to be bound by that. It’s not how we work. (Daniel Copeland wrote a nice blog post that goes into this in more detail.) We can also look at evidence (detailed in Phil’s post that I already linked) that shows that the steady decline of sexism globally correlates with a steady increase in women going into traditionally male fields both in science and the arts (there are far more female-fronted rock bands than their used to be, for one thing.) Obviously correlation is not causation, but it’s telling that these changes are far quicker than the sort of effect we’d expect from evolution, giventhe length of human generations.

And now to point number two. Again, I have some sympathy for this position. It’s completely wrong, but I get it. The issue is that while feminism is becoming quite broadly discussed (online at least), it’s not as broadly understood. This means that many people think that they are (or need to be) anti-feminist or non-feminist, when their views actually align with the majority of feminist theory. This is certainly the position I was in to begin with**. Then a very patient feminist lady on Facebook took the time to actually unpack what we were talking about, and I realised precisely how badly I had the wrong end of the stick.

The first issue I want to talk about here is terminology. Feminists use a number of words in ways which differ from a naive dictionary definition. This is (contrary to to what anti-SJWs would have you believe) not actually uncommon. In my own field as a sound engineer for a radio station, I use a number of terms which would be incomprehensible to someone who isn’t versed in sound tech, and a number of common words (for example “wet/dry”, “trim”, “bright/dark” and “dead/alive”) have quite specific meanings within that field. I’m sure Philip talks differently about physics to advanced students than he does to laypeople for the same reason. The advantage Phil and I have over feminists is that no-one misunderstands or willfully misuses our terminology against us. The terms that suffer the most abuse in discussions about feminism are, I think, “patriarchy” and “privilege”.

Again, since I’m not an academic, and I have already used a significant amount of virtual ink in this post, I’m going to summarise here. If you want really detailed discussions of exactly how these terms function, I suggest you go and check out people like Garrett, Chrisiousity, or Kristi Winters on Youtube. Patriarchy, as I understand it, refers to a social order which assumes that a specific sort of masculinity is the “default” gender identity, and judges all other in comparison (usually negatively). Privilege refers to the advantages (often small, at least when taken individually) that individuals accrue by being close to that default. In the Anglosphere*** the patriarchal ideal is rich, white, physically and emotionally dominant, heterosexual, and male – the more like that you are, the more privilege you have. The tendency is for one’s own privilege to be invisible (ie it just feels “normal”) so you tend to assume everyone can freely do what you can, unless you stop and think about it.

For example, I live in New Zealand. It is a small and fairly egalitarian country (we were among the first to give votes to women, and signed a treaty with our indigenous people rather than just murdering them all and taking their stuff, for example****) and seems reasonably enlightened on the surface. However, when I got married to a Samoan woman, I found that I was now conducting a field test into latent community racism. My wife and I can go into the same store within minutes of each other and get hugely different reactions from staff, because she is brown. When I am out alone with our daughters, I get approving noises from mums about how good it is that I as a Dad spend time with my girls, my wife gets asked if those little blonde girls are really hers. This was entirely invisible to me until that relationship opened a window for me into her world – in other words, a portion of my own privilege became visible to me in a way it hadn’t been. Here’s another example, in New Zealand, the majority of voters want decriminalisation or outright legalisation of cannabis. Our (Tory) prime minister has ruled this out, relying instead on “police discretion” to institute a sort of “de-facto decriminalisation”. The problem is that because people tend to use their discretion in slightly racist ways, this has led to disproportionately terrible outcomes for our Pacific Island and Maori minorities.

This is the result of an organic accretion of values over time – not a conspiracy. (White, straight) men have not conspired to create this system, though some men do work to preserve it because (presumably) they’re afraid of losing what power they have. This system also negatively affects some men – we are expected to be physically dominant and prepared to fight for family or country, and failure to do so can lead to terrible personal consequences. We are not generally assumed to have as deep an emotional life as women (because this is not patriarchally desirable) and this leads to terrible outcomes in mental health. We are expected to be hale and hearty and this leads to horrible outcomes in physical health. This is not a state of affairs that benefits us overall.

I use a pseudonym in lots of places on the internet because when I started out online (in the total wild west of pre-internet dial-up bulletin boards) that was just what people did, and I never thought deeply enough about the habit to change it. I don’t do it because I am afraid that people may harm me or my family because of my opinions. Anecdotally, my female friends are. Moreover, because I exist in a fairly privileged position (I am after all, a straight white dude from the wider Anglosphere) I don’t have to constantly justify my presence online, and my right to an opinion. Anecdotally, my female friends do. This means that I can get into arguments about feminism or other social justice causes on the internet without bringing the fatigue that results from a life of fighting sealions along with me, and I can be polite if the situation seems to merit it. (Also I am a pedantic and argumentative bugger.) While I think that it can be counterproductive to snap at people, I can totally understand why many women, POC, transpeople and so on do not have my level of patience with dudes***** who barge into conversations and restate very basic arguments very incoherently. This is because I have a privilege in terms of online discussion, which they do not.

Since you’re granted privilege by society on the basis of factors you can’t control, you can’t really get rid of it. All you can do is attempt to use it responsibly. One of the ways I try to do this, is by patiently and politely asking questions of antifeminists on the internet until they either make themselves look silly, or become more reasonable. That is, after all, what worked for me.

_____

*I’m going to stick with the terms “men” and “women” here because a) I don’t think trans people are a big enough population to seriously throw out the averages as far as size and weight distributions, and b) the exact configurations of people’s genitals are largely none of my business. I’ll worry about my own genitals, and my wife’s, and that’ll do me.

**I had a deeply tiresome “pendulum” theory about how power moved from group to group in society, and it tied into the death of prog and the rise of punk and it was awful. I had a bit of an embarrassment-shudder just typing that.

***It strikes me as a better shorthand for “mostly-white, mostly-English-speaking countries” than “The West”.

****If any of my readers are Maori and about to get cross with me for oversimplifying and making it seem like NZ’s racial history is just peachy-keen – stop. I know it’s more complicated than that and that the government did plenty of murdering and nicking of stuff (sometimes by stealthy law-making) and that the situation is far from resolved. It’s also a better deal than many colonised indigenous peoples got (which is totally shameful, I know).

*****Let’s face it dudes, it’s usually us. Like, 95% of the time, at least.

The natural order of things?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s faith in action.

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

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

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

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

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

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

14.5 million pairs of twins!

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

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

Back to that blog post…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…it does not seem that biology is limiting intelligence in any way because biology alone cannot explain the vast improvement of female performance on certain measures such as the increasing numbers of females scoring at the highest end of the SAT math test (Blackburn, 2004).”

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

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

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

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

Back to my correspondant’s blog post…

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the dissection of the blog post…

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

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

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

Practice makes perfect?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old dogs, different drums

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Working 9 to 5 (ain’t no way in academia?)

Science magazine has been giving some distinctly dodgy careers advice of late, with two articles in quick succession seemingly being written by authors who were cryogenically frozen in the fifties and revived in 2015 so as to give us the benefit of their views. This week’s Times Higher Education has an article on a letter written in protest about Science’s repeated use of damaging stereotypes and signed by hundreds of researchers, which is being sent to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) on Tuesday. (There’s still time to sign it).

The following paragraph, from the most recent article criticised in the letter to the AAAS, has been forensically dissected in a couple of blog posts I recommend — Bryan Gaensler‘s “Workaholism isn’t a valid requirement for advancing in science” and Chad Orzel‘s “Scientists should work the hours when they work best“.

I worked 16 to 17 hours a day, not just to make progress on the technology but also to publish our results in high-impact journals. How did I manage it? My wife—also a Ph.D. scientist—worked far less than I did; she took on the bulk of the domestic responsibilities. Our children spent many Saturdays and some Sundays playing in the company lobby. We made lunch in the break room microwave.

There’s a lot to wince at here, including the fact that the author’s wife “took on the bulk of the domestic responsibilities” while he blazed a trail, the children spending “many Saturdays” playing in the company lobby while dad worked, and the idea that his wife “worked far less”. (On a day when the kids are bickering and being particularly fractious, I’d find 16 hours in the office/lab a piece of cake compared to the rigours of domesticity).

But here’s the rub. The “I worked 16 to 17 hours a day” bit resonates with me. And I am just a little bit uneasy about sending the message to early career researchers that a successful academic career — at least in the present system — doesn’t involve long hours. I think it’s misleading and naive to suggest otherwise. Before I get shot down in flames, I need to stress that this doesn’t mean that I am suggesting that students and postdocs should be encouraged to work themselves into the ground. Nor am I an advocate of the current system — things have to change. The following, which I contributed to an article entitled “Parenthood and academia: an impossible balance?” in the THE last year, might help to explain my perspective.

“Daddy, Niamh won’t give me the loom band maker. And she won’t stop singing Let It Go really loudly all the time. Tell her to stop.”

“OK, calm down. I’ll be with you in a second. Just let me finish this email.”

“Daddy! She still won’t give me the loom bands. And she still won’t stop singing.”

“OK. OK. With you in a second.”

“DADDY!”

Deep sigh. Close laptop lid.

“OK. Coming now.”

I’d foolishly broken my golden rule again: never attempt to work at weekends or before the kids go to bed. As a certain porcine mainstay of children’s television who is wise beyond her years (and species) would put it: “Silly Daddy!”

Niamh, our first child, was born in 2003, when I was a reader. Her sister, Saoirse, arrived in 2005, when I was promoted to a chair, and her brother, Fiachra, came along another three years later. So my career was rather firmly bedded in before, in our mid-thirties, my wife, Marie, and I decided to start a family.

It has still not been entirely straightforward for us to juggle Marie’s shifts as a nursing auxiliary at the Queen’s Medical Centre (next to the university) with the time and travel demands of my work in academic physics. But if the children had started arriving a few years earlier than they had, when I was a (relatively) fresh-faced new lecturer, I don’t quite know how I’d have coped.

I found the transition from postdoctoral researcher to lecturer something of a culture shock. As a postdoc, your focus is almost entirely on research. A lectureship requires that focus to shift rapidly between at least three separate roles: teaching, research supervision and the ever-present administrative demands of both. Add in the demand to produce “impact” and you end up with a role that amounts to at least two full-time jobs in one. As a lecturer, I regularly worked 70- or 80-hour weeks (including weekends, of course), and this is not at all unusual in physics. Clearly that is not compatible with parenthood.

Nowadays, although I do sometimes fail, I try my utmost to keep evenings and weekends free to spend with the family. I have got into the habit of getting up very early in the mornings – around 4am – to have a few hours to work before taking the children to school. They are easily the most productive hours of my day. I have also tried, as much as possible, to cut down on the amount of travel to conferences and workshops I do. Again, this is much easier to do at this stage of my career than it would have been 10 years ago. Nonetheless, I still spend too much time away; so much more could be done via videoconferencing.

The working culture of your school or department is, of course, an essential factor in how easy you find it to balance family and work commitments. In my experience – and I know that this holds true for many of my colleagues – the School of Physics and Astronomy at Nottingham, where I have been since I was a postdoc, has been exceptionally supportive. As a testament to this, it was this year awarded “champion” status in the Institute of Physics’ Project Juno for “taking action to address gender inequities across its student and staff body”. I am not the first to observe that the changes facilitated by that project have resulted in a working environment that is better for everyone.

Still, I’m going to have to end on a downbeat note. Because I know for a fact that the research outputs I had when I landed my lectureship in 1997 would be nowhere near enough to secure that position today. Indeed, I wouldn’t even be shortlisted. The bar for entry to the academy is being raised at an extraordinarily high rate. I’m sure I don’t need to spell out the implications of this for the work-life balance of young scientists.

Let’s not beat around the bush, the competition for academic positions is intense. I’ve referred before to this letter in Physics World a couple of months back which makes the point especially well when it comes to my discipline.

 

In response to that careers advice column in Science, I’ve seen tweets and comments stating that long hours aren’t really necessary because we should “work smarter, not harder”. I’ve heard this argument quite a bit over the years. It’s rather trite advice in my opinion. Science simply doesn’t work to order — so much research involves going down blind alleys, reversing, inadvertently (or deliberately) taking a diversion, doing a U-turn, getting things wrong, getting things right only to find out that it doesn’t help solve the original problem, and in the end finding that Edison’s “one percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration” appraisal really isn’t too far off the mark.

Working “smarter” simply isn’t an option in many cases — sheer bloody-minded tenacity is what’s required. This requires long and frustrating stints in the lab. Yet sometimes, when it works, the culmination of that effort is the most enjoyable aspect of the entire scientific process — we endure the pain and the long hours just to hit that (very) occasional high.

I’ll stress again that there is certainly no expectation from me that students and postdocs in the group here at Nottingham do long hours. I give them advice very similar to that offered by Chad Orzel in his blog post — do what works for you (and I certainly don’t dictate a required number of hours per week). But, similarly, I don’t feel embarrassed at all to say that I’ve enjoyed working long hours at times — lots of researchers border on the obsessive when it comes to their work and bouts of intense single-mindedness can often be an exciting, infuriating, and central element of the scientific process for some.

Orzel describes his far-from-traditional working pattern as a postdoc –including the obligatory late night visits to vending machines — as “a dumb thing I did”. As someone who has similarly regularly enjoyed the late night, mid-experiment caffeine injections provided by a machine-generated beverage which tasted “almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea” (or, indeed, any other caffeinated drink), I beg to differ. It worked for him — and for me — at the time. Whether it was dumb or not is entirely down to the circumstances of the individual researcher (as, to be fair, Orzel himself goes on to say in his post).

There’s also much more to academia than hands-on research. When you start as a new member of academic staff, you have to keep the research side going (and build up a new independent programme of work), start designing and giving lecture courses (and marking coursework/exams), get used to a whole new world of admin pain, and try to be the best tutor you can be. “Work smarter, not harder” doesn’t cut it — there are only a finite number of hours in the week and, as I describe in that THE article above, I couldn’t have kept my head above water in that first couple of years without burning quite a lot of midnight oil.

I’m not moaning about this (promise). I love my job and some of the key reasons I’m drawn to it are the diversity of the things I can do, the independence, and the large degree of flexibility in working patterns. Let’s not sell PhD students and postdocs a pup, however. Academia places large demands on our time and a 37.5 hour working week is simply not the norm. (Even if the Higher Education Funding Council for England and Research Councils UK assume that academics indeed work a 37.5 hour week. Apparently that’s a “fair and reasonable” figure. But that’s a story for another post…)