“Some down-to-earth blue sky thinking”

“… a dangerous convergence proceeds apace 

as human beings confer life on machines and

in so doing diminish themselves. 

Your calculus may be greater than his calculus 

but will it pass the Sullenberger Hudson river test?”

from “Insulting Machines”, Mike Cooley

(Published in AI and Society 28 373 (2013))


Last week, I listened to some of the most thought-provoking — and occasionally unsettling — presentations and discussions that I’ve encountered throughout my academic career. On Tuesday, I attended, and participated in, the 2019 Responsible Research and Innovation Conference (organised by Nottingham’s Graduate School and the Institute for Science and Society), while on Wednesday the School of Physics and Astronomy hosted the British Pugwash Ethical Science half-day conference:

More on both of these soon. But before I describe just why I found those conferences as affecting as I did, I wanted to highlight last Monday’s session for the Politics, Perception, and Philosophy of Physics (PPP) module. This was the first of this year’s PPP sessions where the students were given free rein to contribute via debate and discussion, and both Omar Almaini (the co-convenor of PPP) and myself were exceptionally impressed by their thoughtful and spirited contributions. (The first three sessions of PPP are in the traditional lecture format. Sessions 4 – 11 are much more akin to the seminar style that is common in arts and humanities disciplines but is very much not the norm in physics courses.)

I have always found the clichés surrounding the STEM vs arts & humanities divide extremely tiresome, and it’s a delight when our students demolish the lazy stereotypes regarding the supposed lack of communication skills of physicists. (Similarly, one of the invited speakers for PPP this year, the sociologist Harry Collins, has shown that social scientists can perform comparably to – or even better than — physicists when it comes to answering physics questions. See “Sociologist Fools Physics Judges” (Nature, 2006) for compelling evidence. More from (and about) Prof. Collins in future posts…)

The title of last Monday’s PPP session was “The Appliance (and non-applicance) of Science” and the slides are embedded below. (Those of you who, like myself, are of a certain vintage might recognise the tag line of the title.)

 

The students drove an hour-long discussion that initially focussed on the two questions given on Slide #3 of the PowerPoint file above but rapidly diverged to cover key related points such as science comms, public engagement, hostility to expertise, and political polarisation. The discussion could have extended much beyond an hour — there were still hands being raised after we’d been in the seminar room for 90 minutes. As is traditional for PPP, I noted down students’ points and questions on the whiteboard as the discussion proceeded. Here are just two of the eight whiteboards’ worth of material…

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(The remainder of the slides are available at the PPP website.)

In case you can’t read my appalling hand-writing, one of the first points raised by the students was the following:

“Curiosity is more than a valid reason to fund research” 

This view kicked off a lot of discussion, culminating in the polar opposite view expressed at the bottom of the whiteboard summary below: “What’s the point of funding anything other than global warming research?”

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“Humanity came and destroyed the world”

The theme of the PPP session last Monday was chosen to align with the Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI2019) and Ethical Science conferences on the following days. This post would be 10,000 words long if I attempted to cover all of the key messages stemming from these conferences so I’ll focus on just a few highlights (out of very many). This story, by Dimitris Papadopoulos‘ daughter, was a sobering introduction to the motivations and agenda of RRI2019…

Dimitris was a driving force behind the organisation of RRI2019 (alongside colleagues in the Graduate School) and in his presentation he highlighted key aspects of the RRI framework that would recur time and again throughout the day: generational responsibility; designing for the future;  the realisation that what we create often has a lifespan far beyond our own; “the burden is not on the individual researcher” but we are collectively changing the planet.

He also stressed that, in his view, the primary task of science is not just to understand.

In the context of RRI I have a great deal of sympathy with Dimitris’ stance on this latter point. But I also found it rather unsettling because science that is as disinterested as possible and focussed solely on understanding the nature of the world/universe around us has to be a component of the research “landscape”, not least because, time and again throughout history, curiosity-driven science has led to truly disruptive innovations. (Some to the immense benefit of humanity; others less so, admittedly.) Moreover, we need to be exceptionally careful to retain the disinterested character of pure scientific research when it comes to ensuring public trust in just what we do — an issue to which I returned in another RRI2019 session (see below).

Prof. Sarah Sharples, PVC for Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion, was next to speak and made powerful and pointed arguments that senior university (and, indeed, University) management, politicians, and funding bodies of all stripes need to take on board: look beyond simplistic metrics and league tables when it comes to assessing what it means for research to be successful. Sarah highlighted the importance of unintended consequences, particularly when it comes to the ironies of automation; clinical care, in particular, is not just about recording numbers and data.

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Pete Licence, Professor of Chemistry and Director of The GlaxoSmithKline Carbon Neutral Laboratory, continued on the theme of being wary and cognisant of the possibility and potential of unintended consequences, but stressed that sometimes those consequences can be much more positive than we could have ever anticipated. Pete described his collaboration with a number of Ethiopian scientists, which has radically changed both his and their approach to not just the science but the economics associated with green chemistry. He also echoed Sarah Sharples’ key point on the matter of ensuring that we never lose sight of the humanity behind the metrics and tick-boxes: too many lenses mean that, paradoxically, we can often lose focus…

Maybe, Minister?

The RRI conference then split into parallel sessions. This unfortunately meant that I couldn’t go along to the Society and Responsibility discussion — which I was keen to attend (not least because my friend and colleague Brigitte Nerlich was a member of the panel) – as I was participating in the Responsibility in Research and Policy session happening at the same time, alongside Chris Sims (Head of Global Policy Impact at UoN and the Chair and organiser of the session), Steven Hill (Director of Research at Research England, and formerly Head of Policy at HEFCE), and Richard Masterman, UoN’s Associate PVC for Research Strategy and Performance. (All-male panels are never a good look but, in the organisers’ defence, the panel was not initially male only — the original speaker, Dr. Karen Salt (Director of the Centre for Research in Race and Rights at UoN), unfortunately couldn’t make it — and the parallel Society and Responsibility session involved an all-female panel.)

Steven and I have debated and discussed the issues surrounding HEFCE’s, and the research councils’, approach to research impact on a number of occasions — some more heated than others — over the years. (I was very pleased to find that we seem to have converged (give or take) on the middle ground after all these years.) After Chris framed the key themes of the panel discussion, we each had approximately ten mins to make our case. Steven’s ccontribution focussed on the core issue of just how research should (or should not) inform policy and just what RRI should look like in that “space”.

The trade-offs and tensions between researchers and politicians were a core theme of Steven’s argument. To a scientist, the answer to any question is invariably “More research is needed”; a politican, on the other hand, ideally has to make a decision, sometimes urgently, on the basis of the evidence at hand. And the last thing they want to be told is that more research is needed. This was also the resounding message I got at Westminster when I participated (along with my Physics & Astronomy colleague Clare Burrage) in the Royal Society’s MP-Scientist scheme back in 2013: science really is not as far up the pecking order as we scientists might like. For this reason, I enthusiastically recommend Chris Tyler‘s illuminating “Top 20 things scientists need to know about policy-making” to the PPP class every year.

Steven mentioned Roger Pielke Jr’s “honest broker” concept — whereby scientists should be entirely disinterested, fully objective reporters of “The Truth” (however that might be defined) when interacting with politicians and policy. In other words, any tendency towards activism — i.e. promoting a particular (geo)political standpoint — should be avoided entirely. I have major qualms with Pielke’s thesis but Ken Rice (aka “…And Then There’s Physics“) has dealt with these much more comprehensively and eloquently than I could ever manage.

I was also put in mind, on more than one occasion during Steven’s presentation, of “The Thick Of It” clip below (which also features in the PPP course each year. Apologies for the audio quality.)

Richard then outlined the University of Nottingham’s views on the policy-research interface, before I presented the following [1]:

 

The ensuing discussion amongst the panel members, with a lively Q&A from the floor, touched on many of the same points that had been raised during the PPP session the day before: the disinterestedness of research, basic vs applied science, polarisation in politics, trust in scientists (and other professions), the commercialisation of academic research (which was the subject of a particularly pointed question from Jane Calvert in the audience – more on whom below), and balancing public, political, academic, and commercial drivers.

Synthetic Aesthetics and The Wickedness of Global Challenges

In the first session after lunch, the aforementioned Prof. Calvert, of the School of Social and Political Science at Edinburgh, presented an enthralling keynote lecture entitled Responsible Innovation and Experimental Collaboration, in which se described her adventures in synthetic biology, with a particular focus on cross-disciplinary interactions between artists, scientists (of both the social and life variety), and designers.

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A particularly fascinating aspect of Prof. Calvert’s talk was the description of her work on the Synthetic Aesthetics project, from which a book (among many other “outputs”) has stemmed. I’ll quote directly from the blurb for the book because it captures the core message of Jane’s talk:

In this book, synthetic biologists, artists, designers, and social scientists investigate synthetic biology and design. After chapters that introduce the science and set the terms of the discussion, the book follows six boundary-crossing collaborations between artists and designers and synthetic biologists from around the world, helping us understand what it might mean to ‘design nature.’ These collaborations have resulted in biological computers that calculate form; speculative packaging that builds its own contents; algae that feeds on circuit boards; and a sampling of human cheeses. They raise intriguing questions about the scientific process, the delegation of creativity, our relationship to designed matter, and, the importance of critical engagement. Should these projects be considered art, design, synthetic biology, or something else altogether?

I have a long-standing interest in the interface between the arts and the sciences — see, for example, The Silent Poetry of Paint Drying, and these posts — so was fascinated by the interweaving of function, form, and, errmm, fungi in the Synthetic Aesthetics project…

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The second post-lunch keynote was from Prof. Phil McNaghten (Wageningen University & Research (WUR), Netherlands), whose work with Matthew Kearnes and James Wilsdon on the ESRC-funded “Governing At The Nanoscale: People, Policies, and Emerging Technologies” project (published in this Demos pamphlet) was more than partly responsible for sparking my nascent interest in the sociology of (nano)science and technology more than a decade ago. Phil’s talk at RRI2019 focussed on how RRI was embedded in practice and policy at the local (WUR), national (EPSRC), and international (Brazil, which is enduring vicious cuts to its science budget) levels.

The Sounds of (Responsible) Salesmen…

I unfortunately only caught the last fifteen minutes or so of the Molecules and Microbes parallel session — chaired by Pete Licence and featuring Prof Steve Howdle (Chemistry, Nottingham), Prof Liz Sockett & Dr Jess Tyson (Life Sciences, Nottingham), and Prof Panos Soultanas (Chemistry, Nottingham) — and so can’t really comment in detail. Panos’ impassioned plea for support for basic, curiosity-driven science certainly resonated, although I can’t say I entirely agreed with his suggestion that irresponsible research wasn’t an issue. (I may have misinterpreted what he meant, however — I didn’t catch all of his presentation.)

The closing plenary was expertly chaired by Dr. Alison Mohr, who introduced, in turn, Dr. Eleanor Kershaw (Synthetic Biology Centre, UoN), Prof. Richard Jones (Physics, University of Sheffield (and erstwhile PVC for Research and Innovation there), and Prof. Martyn Poliakoff. I have known Richard for over fifteen years and have always enjoyed his informed and engaging takes on everything from nanotechnology to transhumanism to the UK’s productivity crisis, via a variety of talks I’ve attended and his blog, Soft Machines. (I also had the pleasure of spending a week at an EPSRC sandpit back in 2007 that was coordinated and steered — in so far as it’s possible to steer a room-full of academics — by Prof. Jones.)

In his plenary, Richard stressed the “scientist as responsible salesman” theme that he has put forward previously (as one of many dimensions of responsibility.) For a characteristically comprehensive analysis of responsible innovation (and irresponsible stagnation), I thoroughly recommend this Soft Machines post.

Martyn Poliakoff brought the conference to a close in his ever-engaging and inimitable style, with a compelling vision of what he and his colleagues have described as a Moore’s law for chemistry,

… namely that over a given period, say five years, sustainable chemists should strive to reduce the amount of a chemical needed to produce a given effect by a factor of two and this process should be repeated for a number of cycles. The key will be to make the whole concept, especially the economics, work for everyone which will require a change in business model for the chemicals market.

[Quote taken from A New Approach to Sustainability: A Moore’s Law for Chemistry, M. Poliakoff, P. Licence, and M. George, Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 57 12590 (2018)]

“Remember your humanity, and forget the rest.”

Although the word Pugwash has an alternative “resonance” for many of us kids of the sixties/seventies, the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, and the subsequent International Student/Young Pugwash movement, take their name from the town in Nova Scotia, Canada where Joseph Roblat and Bertrand Russell established, in 1957, the international organisation to bring together scientists and public figures to address global security, armed conflict, and the threat of weapons of mass destruction (including, in particular, nuclear warfare). The Pugwash conferences were initiated two years after the Russell-Einstein manifesto was issued, which in turn stemmed from Russell’s deep fears about atomic weapons:

The prospect for the human race is sombre beyond all precedent. Mankind are faced with a clear-cut alternative: either we shall all perish, or we shall have to acquire some slight degree of common sense. A great deal of new political thinking will be necessary if utter disaster is to be averted.

Jo(seph) Roblat was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995 “for efforts to diminish the part played by nuclear arms in international affairs and, in the longer run, to eliminate such arms.” 

I have organised a number of joint events with British Pugwash — more specifically, with Andrew Gibson, the British Pugwash Student Manager — over the last few years, including a PPP seminar given back in Nov. 2016 by Prof. John Finney (UCL), Pugwash Trustee, and a tireless advocate for the organisation. Alongside Peter Jenkins, Chair of British Pugwash, John kicked off the Ethical Science conference at Nottingham last Wednesday with a fascinating account of the history of Pugwash and, in particular, Jo Rotblat’s inspiring life.

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Dr. Ian Crossland then discussed the ethics and intergenerational issues surrounding nuclear power, followed by a stirring presentation by Sam Harris, climate activist and Nottingham Trent Labour Society’s campaigns officer, on Labour’s Green New Deal.

LauraNolan.pngA  particular highlight of not just the Pugwash conference but of all of last weeks’ events was Laura Nolan‘s remarkable presentation, delivered with tons of energy and passion. (I try to avoid the p-word, given that it’s an obnoxiously lazy cliche, but in this case it is more than justified.) Laura, a Trinity College Dublin computer science graduate, resigned from Google, where she was a software engineer, in 2017 after she was asked to work on a project whose focus was the enhancement of US miltary drone technology. Laura’s story is recounted in this important Guardian article. (See also this interview.) The quote below, from that article, captures the issues that Laura covered in her talk at the Pugwash conference.

“If you are testing a machine that is making its own decisions about the world around it then it has to be in real time. Besides, how do you train a system that runs solely on software how to detect subtle human behaviour or discern the difference between hunters and insurgents? How does the killing machine out there on its own flying about distinguish between the 18-year-old combatant and the 18-year-old who is hunting for rabbits?

Anuradha Damale — currently of Verification Research, Training and Information Centre, and a fellow physicist — had a tough act to follow but she delivered a great talk with quite some aplomb, despite having lost her voice! Anuradha covered the troublesome issue of nuclear weapons verification programmes, and despite the lack of vocal volume, participated in a lively Q&A session with Laura following their talks.

I’m going to close this post with the source of its title: “Down-to-earth blue sky thinking”. The inspiring video embedded below was shown by Tony Simpson — who also discussed Mike Cooley’s pioneering work on the influence of technology on society (and whose prose poem, “Insulting Machines“, is quoted above) — during the closing presentation of the Pugwash conference.

I’ve waffled on for much too long at this point. Let’s hear instead from those whose actions spoke so much louder than words…

 


 

[1] It’s unfortunately not clear from the embedded SlideShare widget of the slides but I cited (and quoted from) this influential blog post when crediting Gemma Derrick and Paul Benneworth with coining the “grimpact” term.

“We don’t need no education…”

(…or Why It Sometimes Might Be Better For Us Academics to Shut The F**k Up Occasionally.)

Boost Public Engagement to Beat Pseudoscience, says Jim Al-Khalili” goes the headline on p.19 of this week’s Times Higher Education, my traditional Saturday teatime read. The brief article, a summary of points Jim made during his talk at the Young Universities Summit, continues…

Universities must provide more opportunities for academics to engage with the public or risk allowing pseudoscience to “fill the vacuum”, according to Jim Al-Khalili.

Prof. Al-Khalili is an exceptionally talented and wonderfully engaging science communicator. I enjoy, and very regularly recommend (to students and science enthusiasts of all stripes), his books and his TV programmes. But the idea that education and academic engagement are enough to counter pseudoscience is, at the very best, misleading and, at worst, a dangerous and counter-productive message to propagate.

The academic mantra of “education, education, education” as the unqualified panacea for every socioeconomic ill, although comforting, is almost always a much too simplistic — and, for some who don’t share our ideological leanings, irritatingly condescending — approach. I’ve written enthusiastically before about Tom Nichols’ powerful “The Death of Expertise”, and I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve referred to David McRaney’s The Backfire Effect in previous posts and articles I’ve written. It does no harm to quote McRaney one more time…

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?

Perhaps you’ve been more fortunate than McRaney (and me.) But somehow I doubt it.

As just one example from McRaney’s list, there is strong and consistent evidence that, in the U.S., Democrats are much more inclined to accept the evidence for anthropogenic climate change than Republicans. That’s bad enough, but the problem of political skew in motivated rejection of science is much broader. A very similar and very distinct right-left asymmetry exists across the board, as discussed in Lewandowsky and Oberauer’s influential paper, Motivated Rejection Of Science. I’ll quote from their abstract, where they make the same argument as McRaney but in rather more academic, though no less compelling, terms [1]:

Rejection of scientific findings is mostly driven by motivated cognition: People tend to reject findings that threaten their core beliefs or worldview. At present, rejection of scientific findings by the U.S. public is more prevalent on the political right than the left. Yet the cognitive mechanisms driving rejection of science, such as the superficial processing of evidence toward the desired interpretation, are found regardless of political orientation. General education and scientific literacy do not mitigate rejection of science but, rather, increase the polarization of opinions along partisan lines.

Let me repeat and bolden that last line for emphasis. It’s exceptionally important.


General education and scientific literacy do not mitigate rejection of science but, rather, increase the polarization of opinions along partisan lines.


If we blithely assume that the rejection of well-accepted scientific findings — and the potential subsequent descent into the cosy embrace of pseudoscience — is simply a matter of a lack of education and engagement, we fail to recognise the complex and multi-facetted sociology and psychology at play here. Yes, we academics need to get out there and talk about the research we and others do — and I’m rather keen on doing this myself (as discussed here, here, and here) — but let’s not make the mistake that there’s always a willing audience waiting with bated breath for the experts to come and correct them on what they’re getting wrong.

I spend a lot of time on public engagement, both online and off — although not, admittedly, as much as Jim — and I’ve encountered the “motivated rejection” effect time and time again over the years. Here’s just one example of what I mean — a comment posted under the most recent Computerphile video I did with Sean Riley:

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The “zero credibility” comment stems not from the science presented in the video but from a reaction to my particular ideological and political leanings. For reasons I’ve discussed at length previously, I’ve been labelled as an “SJW” — a badge I’m happy to wear with quite some pride. (If you’ve not encountered the SJW perjorative previously, lucky you. Here’s a primer.) Because of my SJW leanings, the science I present, regardless of its accuracy (and level of supporting evidence/research), is immediately rejected by a subset of aggrieved individuals who do not share my political outlook. They outright dismiss the credibility or validity of the science not on the basis of the content or the strength of the data/evidence but solely on their ideological, emotional, and knee-jerk reaction to me…

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(That screenshot above is taken from the comments section for this video.)

It’s worth noting that the small hardcore of viewers who regularly downvote and leave comments about the ostensible lack of credibility of the science I present are very often precisely those who would claim to be ever-so-rational and whose clarion call is “Facts over feels” [1]. Yet they are so opposed to my “SJW-ism” that they reject everything I say, on any topic, as untrustworthy; they cannot get beyond their gut-level emotional reaction to me.

My dedicated following of haters is a microcosm of the deep political polarisation we’re seeing online, with science caught in the slip-stream and accepted/rejected on the basis of how it appeals to a given worldview, rather than on the strength of the scientific evidence itself. (And it’s always fun to be told exactly how science works by those who have never carried out an experiment, published a paper, been a member of a peer-review panel, reviewed a grant etc.) This then begs the question: Am I, as a left-leaning academic with clearly diabolical SJW tendencies, in any position at all to educate this particular audience on any topic? Of course not. No matter how much scientific data and evidence I provide it will be dismissed out of hand because I am not of their tribe.[3]

Jim Al-Khalili’s argument at the Young Universities Summit that what’s required is ever-more education and academic engagement is, in essence, what sociologists and Science and Technology Studies (STS) experts would describe as the deficit model. The deficit model has been widely discredited because it simply does not accurately describe how we modify our views (or not) in the light of more information. (At the risk of making …And Then There’s Physics  scream, I encourage you to read their informative and entertaining posts on the theme of the deficit model.)

Prof. Al-Khalili is further reported as stating that “…to some extent, you do have to stand up and you do have to bang on about evidence and rationalism, because if we don’t, we will make the same mistakes of the past where the vacuum will be filled with people talking pseudoscience or nonsense.” 

Banging on about evidence and rationalism will have close to zero effect on ideologically opoosed audiences because they already see themselves as rational and driven by evidence [3]; they won’t admit to being biased and irrational because their bias is unconscious. And we are all guilty of succumbing to unconscious bias, to a greater or lesser extent. Force-feeding  more data and evidence to those with whom we disagree is not only unlikely to change their minds, it’s much more likely to entrench them further in their views. (McRaney, passim.)

Let me make a radical suggestion. What if we academics decided to engage rather less sometimes? After all, who is best placed to sway the position — on climate change, vaccination, healthcare, social welfare, or just about any topic — of a deeply anti-establishment Trump supporter who has fallen hook, line, and sinker for the “universities are hotbeds of cultural Marxism” meme? A liberal academic who can trot out chapter and verse from the literature, and present watertight quantitative (and qualitative) arguments ?

Of course not.

We need to connect, somehow, beyond the level of raw data and evidence. We need to appeal to that individual’s biases and psychology. And that means thinking more cannily, and more politically, about how we influence a community. Barking, or even gently reciting, facts and figures is not going to work. This is uncomfortable for any scientist, I know. But you don’t need to take my word for it — review the evidence for yourself.

The strength of the data used to support a scientific argument almost certainly won’t make a damn bit of difference when a worldview or ideology is challenged. And that’s not because our audience is uneducated. Nor are they unintelligent. They are behaving exactly as we do. They are protecting their worldview via the backfire effect.

 


[1] One might credibly argue that the rejection skew could lean the other way on certain topics such as the anti-vaccination debate, where anecdotal, and other, evidence might suggest that there is a stronger liberal/left bias. It turns out that even when it comes to anti-vaxxers, there is quite a considerable amount of data to support that it’s the right that has a higher degree of anti-science bias [2]. Here’s one key example: Trust In Scientists On Climate Change and Vaccines, LC Hamilton, J Hartter, and K Saito,  SAGE Open, July – Sept 2015, 1 – 13. See also Beyond Misinformation, S. Lewandowsky, U. K. H. Ecker, and J. Cook, J. Appl. Res. Memory. Cogn. 6 353 (2017) for a brief review of some of the more important literature on this topic.

[2] …but then it’s all lefty, liberal academics writing these papers, right? They would say that.

[3] Here’s an amusing recent example of numerological nonsense being passed off as scientific reasoning. Note that Peter Coles’ correspondent claims that the science is on his side. How persuasive do you think he’ll find Peter’s watertight, evidence-based reasoning to be? How should he be further persauded? Will more scientific evidence and data do the trick?

 

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?

Bullshit and Beyond: From Chopra to Peterson

Harry G Frankfurt‘s On Bullshit is a modern classic. He highlights the style-over-substance tenor of the most fragrant and flagrant bullshit, arguing that

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says
only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye
is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

In other words, the bullshitter doesn’t care about the validity or rigour of their arguments. They are much more concerned with being persuasive. One aspect of BS that doesn’t quite get the attention it deserves in Frankfurt’s essay, however, is that special blend of obscurantism and vacuity that is the hallmark of three world-leading bullshitters of our time:  Deepak Chopra, Karen Barad (see my colleague Brigitte Nerlich’s important discussion of Barad’s wilfully impenetrable language here), and Jordan Peterson. In a talk for the University of Nottingham Agnostic, Secularist, and Humanist Society last night (see here for the blurb/advert), I focussed on the intriguing parallels between their writing and oratory. Here’s the video of the talk.

Thanks to UNASH for the invitation. I’ve not included the lengthy Q&A that followed (because I stupidly didn’t ask for permission to film audience members’ questions). I’m hoping that some discussion and debate might ensue in the comments section below. If you do dive in, try not to bullshit too much…

 

 

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

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

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

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

(Oxford University Press (2001))


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

‘Noel’


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

Hi, Noel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the best,

Philip


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will have a look at the blog later matey,

Take care,

Noel


 

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

Hi, Noel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, there *is* clear evidence that societal factors play an important role. See, for example, the IOP report to which this blog post refers (not my post this time): http://neilatkin.com/2016/07/08/improving-gender-balance-increasing-number-girls-level-physics/

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

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

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

We learn stuff, right? As I say in this video — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zPhgc2IBj1M (a direct response to Mason) – my spatial reasoning skills developed a huge amount with practice. Why assume that those aptitudes or preferences are hard-wired?

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

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

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

All the best,

Philip


 

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


 

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

Hi Philip,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last bit:

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

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

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

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

Noel

Footnotes:

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

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

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


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

Hi, Noel.

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

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

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

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

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

All the best,

Philip


 

From: ‘Noel Plum’
Sent: 29 October 2016
To: Moriarty Philip <Ppzpjm@exmail.nottingham.ac.uk>
Subject: RE: Video now online

Hi Philip,

So quickly with regard to your two points:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Noel

To be continued…


 

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

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

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

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:

Anon1.png

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:

Anon2.png

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:

bearing

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”):

bearing4

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:

bearing5.png

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…

enkidu1

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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.