An avid fan writes…

This arrived in my mailroom pigeonhole today — a proper, honest to goodness, old-school letter (but, disappointingly, written in boring monochrome rather than the traditional green.) It’s a response, of sorts, to my recent letter to The Sunday Times. I can’t quite decide as to whether it’s a pitch-perfect parody — the line about girls not instinctively “learning to throw” is perhaps a little too good — or if my aggrieved correspondent somehow joined Jacob Rees-Mogg in teleporting here from the 18th century…

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How Science Got Women Wrong

They say you should never meet those who’ve inspired you because it’s impossible to live up to the weight of expectations. Well, sometimes they’re just flat-out wrong. Angela Saini, whose Inferior is a masterclass in compelling science writing (for all of the reasons Jess Wade discusses in her review for Physics World), visited Nottingham yesterday evening, rounding off a week of events for International Women’s Day, to give what may well have been her very last talk on the subject of that exceptionally influential book: how science got women wrong. And she was every bit as impressive in person as her writing would suggest.

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Angela carefully, scientifically, and engagingly dismissed the various stereotypes and zombie myths that continue to be trotted out, unthinkingly, by those who claim that women are just not “wired” for science. She was too polite to name and shame the academic responsible for the nonsense below — from a book published as recently as 2010 [1]–  which drew incredulous chuckles and laughter from the audience…

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I’m not as polite as Angela, however. That quote is from Simon Baron-Cohen, whom I’ve mentioned before once or twice at this blog in the context of over-aggrieved gentlemen and their wilfully uninformed assertions on the natural order of things. Angela highlighted how even the best scientists (Darwin included) can unblinkingly accept the cultural and societal mores and prejudices of their time.

My colleague and friend Mark Fromhold neatly summed up Angela’s talk:

..and I agree entirely with @UoNBioscicareer’s take on the take-home message:

Thank you, Angela, for visiting Nottingham to explain not only how science got women wrong but what we need to do to put things right. Those biases are deeply engrained but, to echo the message we closed on last night, recognising them is the first step towards addressing them.

Angela’s new book Superior: The Return of Race Science is out at the end of May. It is set to be just as influential as Inferior. You can pre-order it now…

[1] That’s not a typo. 2010. Not 1910.

 

 

 

 

 

Beauty and the Biased

A big thank you to Matin Durrani for the invitation to provide my thoughts on the Strumia saga — see “The Worm That (re)Turned” and “The Natural Order of Things?” for previous posts on this topic — for this month’s issue of Physics World. PW kindly allows me to make the pdf of the Opinion piece available here at Symptoms. The original version (with hyperlinks intact) is also below.

(And while I’m at it, an even bigger thank you to Matin, Tushna, and all at PW for this immensely flattering (and entirely undeserved, given the company I’m in) accolade…


From Physics World, Dec. 2018.

A recent talk at CERN about gender in physics highlights that biases remain widespread, Philip Moriarty says we need to do more to tackle such issues head on

When Physics World asked several physicists to name their favourite books for the magazine’s 30th anniversary issue, I knew immediately what I would choose (see October pp 74-78). My “must-read” pick was Sabine Hossenfelder’s exceptionally important Lost In Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray, which was released earlier this year.

Hossenfelder, a physicist based at the Frankfurt Institute of Technology, is an engaging and insightful writer who is funny, self-deprecating, and certainly not afraid to give umbrage. I enjoyed the book immensely, being taken on a journey through modern theoretical physics in which Hossenfelder attempts to make sense of her profession. If there is one chapter of the book that particularly resonated with me it’s the concluding Chapter 10, “Knowledge is Power”. This is a powerful closing statement that deserves to be widely read by all scientists, but especially by that especially irksome breed of physicist who believes — when all evidence points to the contrary — that they are somehow immune to the social and cognitive biases that affect every other human.

In “Knowledge is Power”, Hossenfelder adeptly outlines the primary biases that all good scientists have striven to avoid ever since the English philosopher Francis Bacon identified his “idols of the tribe” – i.e. the tendency of human nature to prefer certain types of incorrect conclusions. Her pithy single-line summary at the start of the chapter captures the key issue: “In which I conclude the world would be a better place if everyone listened to me”.

Lost in bias

Along with my colleague Omar Almaini from the University of Nottingham, I teach a final-year module entitled “The Politics, Perception, and Philosophy of Physics”. I say teach, but in fact, most of the module consists of seminars that introduce a topic for students to then debate, discuss and argue for the remaining time. We dissect Richard Feynman’s oft-quoted definition of science: “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts”.  Disagreeing with Feynman is never a comfortable position to adopt, but I think he does science quite a disservice here. The ignorance, and sometimes even the knowledge, of experts underpins the entire scientific effort. After all, collaboration, competition and peer review are the lifeblood of what we do. With each of these come complex social interactions and dynamics and — no matter how hard we try — bias. For this and many other reasons, Lost In Math is now firmly on the module reading list.

At a CERN workshop on high-energy theory and gender at the end of September, theoretical physicist Alessandro Strumia from the University of Pisa claimed that women with fewer citations were being hired over men with greater numbers of citations. Following the talk, Strumia faced an immediate backlash in which CERN suspended him pending an investigation, while some 4000 scientists signed a letter that called his talk “disgraceful”. Strumia’s talk was poorly researched, ideologically-driven, and an all-round embarrassingly biased tirade against women in physics. I suggest that Strumia needs to take a page — or many — out of Hossenfelder’s book. I was reminded of her final chapter time and time again when I read through Strumia’s cliché-ridden and credulous arguments, his reactionary pearl-clutching palpable from almost every slide of his presentation.

One criticism that has been levelled at Hossenfelder’s analysis is that it does not offer solutions to counter the type of biases that she argues are prevalent in the theoretical-physics community and beyond. Yet Hossenfelder does devote an appendix — admittedly rather short — to listing some pragmatic suggestions for tackling the issues discussed in the book. These include learning about, and thus tackling, social and cognitive biases.

This is all well and good, except that there are none so blind as those that will not see. The type of bias that Strumia’s presentation exemplified is deeply engrained. In my experience, his views are hardly fringe, either within or outside the physics community — one need only look to the social media furore over James Damore’s similarly pseudoscientific ‘analysis’ of gender differences in the context of his overwrought “Google Manifesto” last year. Just like Damore, Strumia is being held up by the usual suspects as the ever-so-courageous rational scientist speaking “The Truth”, when, of course, he’s entirely wedded to a glaringly obvious ideology and unscientifically cherry-picks his data accordingly. In a masterfully acerbic and exceptionally timely blog post published soon after the Strumia storm broke (“The Strumion. And On”), his fellow particle physicist Jon Butterworth (UCL) highlighted a number of the many fundamental flaws at the core of Strumia’s over-emotional polemic.   .

Returning to Hossenfelder’s closing chapter, she highlights there that the “mother of all biases” is the “bias blind spot”, or the insistence that we certainly are not biased:

“It’s the reason my colleagues only laugh when I tell them biases are a problem, and why they dismiss my ‘social arguments’, believing they are not relevant to scientific discourse,” she writes. “But the existence of those biases has been confirmed in countless studies. And there is no indication whatsoever that intelligence protects against them; research studies have found no links between cognitive ability and thinking biases.”

Strumia’s diatribe is the perfect example of this bias blind spot in action. His presentation is also a case study in confirmation bias. If only he had taken the time to read and absorb Hossenfelder’s writing, Strumia might well have saved himself the embarrassment of attempting to pass off pseudoscientific guff as credible analysis.

While the beauty of maths leads physics astray, it is ugly bias that will keep us in the dark.

 

Given a good Hyding…

Marina Hyde is on wonderfully acerbic form in today’s Guardian, masterfully knocking Prof. Peterson’s polemic down a peg or two…

What’s particularly delicious, however, is that after Hyde highlights Peterson’s humourless, po-faced, “woe is me(n)” shtick, the comments section lights up with, you guessed it, humourless, po-faced Peterson disciples whining about the lack of intellectual rigour in the article. An article published in the, um, “Lost In Showbiz” column…

Let’s close with a verse from the Good Book. I think that Rule #9 is especially apposite: “Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t.

 

 

Welcome to the Bear Pit: When Public Engagement Goes to Pot

The last time I wrote about the importance of academics engaging with the public, I finished on this upbeat and sweary note: “…you’re an academic, FFS, why aren’t you involved in public engagement?” (It’s perhaps worth reading the blog post in question to put that call to arms in context).

This post is going to be a rather more cautionary tale. That’s not to say that I’m suggesting we academics shouldn’t continue to engage — or at least attempt to engage — with a broader audience than just our students, peers and colleagues. Indeed, although I have been a long-standing critic of the research councils’ impact ‘agenda’, it’s resulted in more thought being paid to how we communicate our research outside our academic circles and that is clearly a very good thing.

But…

Here’s a recent comment posted under a video I uploaded at my YouTube channel:

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That particular piece of vicious libelous abuse — spinelessly issued under anonymous cover, of course — is admittedly rather nastier than what’s usually posted. Here’s another, in the discussion section for the channel, which is a rather more common type of juvenile slur:

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I should stress that the levels of bile and vitriol I receive pale into insignificance against the torrents of abuse that many other YouTube video-makers — or, to use the jargon du jour, content creators — have to endure. I’ll get back to that very soon. First, however, I need to explain just why I’ve started to attract the type of comment above. (Regular readers of Symptoms… (both of you) will be well aware of the reasons underpinning the less-than-erudite feedback that has started to appear at my channel and here at the blog. Feel free to skip past the next section.)

There’s no justice. There’s just us.

If you haven’t yet encountered the pejorative “SJW” (social justice warrior) or its corresponding antiparticle, the “anti-SJW”, then count yourself very lucky indeed. There are battles raging across vast swathes of the internet where those who would identify as proponents of social justice (in the sense described by John Rawls, for example) are pitted against those who see progress towards social justice as being a direct infringement of their basic civil liberties — including, and especially, freedom of speech — that will ultimately result in the fall of western civilisation as we know it. Those who would classify themselves in this latter category tend to be incensed by the notion of political correctness.

I generalise, of course. And that type of sweeping generalisation is a major part of the problem. It’s exceptionally tribal out there. Many of those who claim – vociferously — that they’re independent, free thinkers too often gleefully succumb to mob mentality, labelling those who express opinions counter to theirs as The Other. (More on this towards the end of this post). Similarly, those who would claim that it’s the “left” who want to trample on free speech should pay attention to the opprobrium that Gary Lineker has attracted (including calls for him to be sacked) for this important tweet:

How did I get drawn into the “SJW vs anti-SJW” war of attrition?

I’ve been involved with making videos for YouTube since 2009 via Brady Haran’s channels (largely Sixty Symbols, but I’ve also enjoyed contributing to Numberphile and Computerphile. And I’ve even crossed the physics-chemistry trenches for an occasional Periodic Video).  That has led to quite a bit of online discussion in the comments sections for those videos, which, as I discussed in this Physics World article a couple of years ago, was largely intelligent, engaging, fun, and not infrequently made me reconsider just how I was teaching physics. More recently, public engagement via YouTube has even led to an undergraduate research project (with a publication to follow in hopefully the not-too-distant future).

Many of my colleagues (including postdoctoral and PhD researchers in the group here) thought I was mad for engaging in the comments sections of those videos. (They still do. But even more so now). For them, “below the line”, in just about any online forum, too often represents the condensed collective stupidity of humanity. No good can come of wading into those murky, and grammatically challenged, waters they tell me. But I’d in turn point out that I’ve gained quite a bit out of engaging online and have not had to tolerate any type of bile or abuse at all [1].

Until recently. Being involved with Sixty Symbols and Brady’s other channels has meant that I get invitations to different podcasts/events on a reasonably regular basis. One of these was something called the Magic Sandwich Show. A regular contributor to the MSS for a number of years was a certain Dr. Phil Mason (aka ‘thunderf00t’). On an episode of the MSS last year, he and I clashed on the question of the role of sexual dimorphism as a determinant in the gender balance in physics. I’m not about to revisit that lengthy saga here, you’ll be relieved to know. Here’s a summary.

That spat with Mason was my gateway to the Social Justice WarsTM . I’ve already spent too much time writing about the various YouTube channels which underpin a great deal of the bile and vitriol (see this blog, passim), so I’ll defer to Hank Green for a pithy summary of a key aspect of the problem:

Now, before the keyboards start a rattlin’ among a certain online ‘demographic’, am I saying that all who don’t identify with the social justice position are hate-filled teenage boys? No. Of course not. And I was at pains in this recent video to argue that we shouldn’t generalise:

But let’s not be silly here. There’s clearly a pattern of behaviour in certain online “communities” (and I use the term advisedly) that frequently results in certain channels being swamped by torrents of abuse. Let’s take a look at one prime example.

If you go down to the woods today…

There is a culture among subsets of the subscriber bases of certain YouTube content providers video-makers [2] of posting vicious bile and vitriol under particular videos. The videos in question tend, ever so coincidentally, to be those which that particular video-maker has recently targeted for critique. Here’s a particularly apposite case in point:

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That cartoon is the avatar for a YouTuber called Bearing. I have no idea as to his real name. To the best of my knowledge he has not ever revealed his identity and prefers instead to conceal himself behind the cartoon bear shown above (which he’s borrowed, apparently without attribution, from a show called Total Drama ).  

This ‘Bearing’ person has a tendency to make videos critiquing and criticising (to use terms he would prefer) feminist channels. Here’s a recent example. And here’s another. And another. It turns out that there’s a rather strong correlation between the amount of abuse these feminist channels/videos receive and whether or not they’ve been recently critiqued by the guy behind the cartoon bear. The comment section of a video selected by ‘Bearing’ for critique tends to be flooded with abuse, to the point where the video maker either deletes the video entirely from the channel or makes it private. Like this. Or this.

The most recent target of ‘Bearing”s criticism is [EDIT 18/12/2016Removed name of YouTuber so as to ensure her channel does not receive more abuse via this blog post. Henceforth referred to as “Jane Doe”]. “Jane” has not taken down her video but has disabled comments and likes/dislikes. Just to give you an idea of how vicious and pathetically immature the behaviour of this online mob can get, here’s a sample of comments under one of the other videos at “Jane”‘s channel…

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Note the response directly above from “032 Mendicant Bias”. They’re laudably trying to point out the despicable behaviour of the mob. One other person attempts to do this elsewhere in the comments. Note the response.

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(…and that’s not the end of ‘Sarah Benton’s diatribe. But what I’ve included of the comments here is already dispiriting enough).

As “Overlord Penmaeda” points out above, the video under which this bile has been posted has got nothing to do with feminism. Yet the mob is so incensed, they target her in any way they can.

As if the viciousness of the comments wasn’t enough, there’s this galling and deeply hypocritical comment (note the number of “likes”):

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A person cravenly hiding behind a pseudonym and an avatar, in common with the vast majority of those who post abuse, is whining about the perceived ‘cowardice’ of someone who uploaded a video where she doesn’t attempt to hide her identity in any way and speaks her mind. I think we can all see who the coward is in this case. [3]

It’s worth noting that the comment above wasn’t posted under one of “Jane”‘s videos. It was posted at ‘Bearing”s channel. Along with quite a lot of other vitriol along the lines of that above.

Now, the guy behind the cartoon bear argues that he is not responsible for what his subscribers do. He even laudably includes a disclaimer in the information under the videos he uploads.

First, having worked with Brady Haran for quite some time on YT videos, let’s just say that I’m not entirely convinced of the efficacy of including anything in the video information. In this video, for example, I misspoke towards the end. We included a correction in the video information. Yet I receive a steady stream of e-mails asking me about precisely that misspoken point.

But let’s give this ‘Bearing’ character the benefit of the doubt. Let’s assume that he’s sincere in the intention given in his disclaimer. Yet, strangely enough, every time he uploads a video criticising a feminist channel or video, shortly afterwards spiteful and vicious abuse is posted by spineless, faceless idiots at that particular channel/video. Most of us would notice this rather strong correlation. This ‘Bearing’ chap is clearly not exceptionally stupid so I find it somewhat difficult to believe that he too has not noticed the correlation, particularly as it doesn’t take very long to find comments like the following posted under those particular videos before they’re taken down:

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Now, the guy behind the cartoon bear argues that he’s not responsible for the behaviour of his subscribers. I agree. He can’t dictate what they should or should not do. But I, for one, would be appalled to think that any video critique I made would result in the subject of that criticism being targetted with vicious, spiteful abuse. I might be rather ashamed to have any type of connection between the critique I posted and that type of hateful behaviour. I would be particularly aghast to find that an especially cowardly and vicious subset of those who had subscribed to my channel were responsible for that anonymous abuse and that I was therefore indirectly the origin of the mob’s abusive comments.

But that’s just me.

Oh, and some others…

As for those hiding behind pseudonyms and avatars, lacking the courage and integrity to stand behind their slurs while they complain about others being “delicate flowers”, they shouldn’t think for one minute that “words on a screen” can’t have real world impact. Others might also want to bear that in mind.

Freeze Peach

I have long had a policy at my blog and YouTube channel that I wouldn’t moderate, censor, or edit comments in any way. I describe my motivations for this stance in the second half of this post. A recent article by Hank Green (yes, him again), Stop Screaming In My Home,  and discussions with friends and colleagues have made me reconsider that stance.

Just as for the feminist channels described above, I have recently seen a sharp increase in the number of dislikes for videos (posted years ago) that have nothing to do with my criticism of that certain clique of YouTubers and their views. Similarly, comments related to my spats with Philip Mason and others have been posted under entirely unrelated videos focussed on physics, or music, or both. This is juvenile behaviour.

I’d use a slightly different analogy to that Hank Green outlined in his article. To me, it’s like trying to give a lecture to undergraduates while there’s a bunch of particularly immature kids sitting in the corner of the lecture theatre shouting out “Hey Mr Poopy Head” every minute or so. They’re not there to give constructive criticism — they’re there simply to be disruptive. Free speech doesn’t come into it.

Moreover, I have long been a critic of reducing any type of activity down to simplistic numerical metrics. Usually I’m bemoaning the use of h-indices, impact factors and the like in academia, or the pseudostatistics of primary school assessment, but much the same arguments hold for likes vs dislikes for a video. Moreover, when a 37-minute-long video can receive a number of dislikes within a couple of minutes of being uploaded, one has got to start to question the validity of the “data”. And, sure, the number of likes far outweighed the dislikes in that case. But so what? Those figures reveal nothing about the quality — as opposed to the popularity — of the video. And if the data are being contaminated by noise, I’d be a pretty poor scientist to not attempt to remove that noise.

So from now on, I am shutting down the likes and dislikes for all videos which are not related to the themes discussed above, for the reasons discussed above. Similarly, if comments are posted under a physics-only video related to the themes discussed above, then I will screenshot that comment, remove it, and instead include the screenshot in a (continually updated) post here at the blog [Edit 09/11/2016 I decided instead to simply append the comments in question to this post. See below.] . That way I can sift out irrelevant comments and also have a rather helpful record of the, let’s say, less erudite feedback posted at the YouTube channel.

The Mob Rules

In the “Reacting to Reactions to Reasonable Questions…” video embedded above, I spend quite a bit of time responding to comments from Noel Plum. While Noel and I quibble about certain topics, on the subject of online bullying and posting bile/vitriol/abusive comments I think we’re broadly in agreement. Noel’s recent comments regarding psychological damage (in this recent video) would appear to chime rather closely with my thoughts on the issue. I look forward to having a discussion with Noel on this, and other, themes when he and I can both carve out some time for an online chat.

There’s another reason I wanted to bring up Noel’s recent video, however, and it relates to something I alluded to above: the mob mentality. In the comments section under Noel’s video there’s an hilarious thread which runs to, when I last looked, 75 comments debating whether or not I should be called a “social justice warrior”. The pathological need to label me and put me in either the “SJW” or the “anti-SJW” camp is farcical in the extreme (and Noel interjects at one point in the thread to point this out.)

“He’s definitely an SJW. Burn the heretic. Stone him. Run him out of town. He’s one of them, I tell you. One of them.”

And with that, I’ll leave you with a classic, and rather pertinent, Rush track…

[1] Actually, that’s a little bit of a fib. We did a video on the physics of a game called Portal 2 a while back where I pointed out that the momentum of the main character isn’t conserved. The morning after that video was uploaded I opened up my e-mail box to find a number of missives from rather irate Portal 2 players who castigated me in no uncertain terms for deigning to critique the game in the mildest possible way. And this was despite the fact that I had actually praised the game. The extreme sensitivity took me aback.

[2] My back is now hurting badly from having to bend over backwards to the extent I do here so as not to generalise.

[3] I find that even exceptionally mild criticism of anonymity tends to lead to a significant number of comments about “doxing“. For the record (and for the n^nth time), I am not suggesting for one second that anyone be “doxed”, nor that the apparently sacrosanct right to anonymity be in any way compromised. I am simply pointing out just how spinelessly hypocritical it is to hide behind cover of anonymity to slag off another person, while all the while whining about how much that person is a “delicate flower” because they decide they’d prefer not to read hateful anonymous abuse.


The Whining Wall

I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself.

Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900)

As noted in the post above, in the following section I’m going to append screenshots of the less ‘insightful’ and/or relevant and/or spam comments I receive.

My erudite pseudonymous friend Enkidu has the honour of the inaugural whine. They seem to have a rather weak understanding of just what is meant by censorship. Here are their words of wisdom for all the world – well, that infinitesimally small subset of the world that visits this blog – to see…

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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.