“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)

How to sociably debate social justice

or Why We Should Feed The Trolls.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_____

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

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

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

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

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

The natural order of things?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s faith in action.

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

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

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

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

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

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

14.5 million pairs of twins!

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

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

Back to that blog post…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to my correspondant’s blog post…

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the dissection of the blog post…

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

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

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

Practice makes perfect?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old dogs, different drums

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The Faith and Fables of Thunderfoot

faith (feɪθ). Noun

  1. strong or unshakeable belief in something, esp without proof or evidence

Collins English Dictionary

Back in March, I wrote a strongly-worded, some might even say scathing, critique of Philip Mason’s evidence-free opinions on the role of sexual dimorphism in aptitude/preference for physics. (Mason, in the guise of Thunderf00t, now has a considerable track record of posting hyperbolic anti-feminst rants, often on the subject of Anita Sarkeesian, which have won him a dedicated following in certain online communities and made him a pariah in others).

After uploading that post (“When atheists ape creationists…“), I contacted Mason to make him aware of what I’d written, to give him the opportunity to respond, and to ask whether he would like to debate the issues. The e-mail exchange with Mason, in its entirety, is below.

I will leave it up to the reader to draw their own conclusions as to Mason’s oft-stated commitment to reasoned, informed debate.

(The video to which I refer in the final e-mail of the thread below is here.)

Edit 09/08/2016 A comprehensive dissection of the claim that sexual dimorphism underpins aptitude/preference for physics (or other STEM subjects) is here.


To: Philip Mason
Date: Thu, 10 Mar 2016 13:51:13 +0100
Subject: Sexism in science
From: philip.moriarty@nottingham.ac.uk

Dear Phil (if I may),

Apologies for the e-mail out of the blue. I’ve just been reading this month’s Physics World, which contains a number of articles related to diversity, microagressions, sexism, LGBT communities etc… in physics (but, more generally, right across science). See http://blog.physicsworld.com/2016/03/01/physics-for-all-the-march-2016-issue-of-physics-world-is-now-out/ The last time we discussed these types of problem (on the MSS last year), I think we’d possibly both agree that it wasn’t the most productive of exchanges. It’d be good if we could revisit this?

I find it intriguing that despite our similar stances with regard to atheism and the value of science and rational argument in general, we seem to be diametrically opposed when it comes to issues related to sexism, feminism etc.. Over the years I’ve been involved in a number of debates which were in what might be best described as “spat” format: 500 word e-mail exchanges back and forth. (Here’s an example with regard to public vs private funding of science (although the word limit was often breached!) — http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/~ppzstm/pdfs/papers/2010/kealey_public.pdf )

Is this something you might consider doing? I think that a debate along these lines could be very useful and organisations such as the IOP, RSC, RS etc.. may well be interested. If you’re interested please e-mail me at philip.moriarty@nottingham.ac.uk and we can try to hammer out the details.

Best wishes,

Philip

Philip Moriarty, School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Nottingham



From: Thunder Foot
Sent: 15 March 2016 14:23
To: philip.moriarty@nottingham.ac.uk
Subject: RE: Sexism in science

Yeah… i’d like to… but honestly Im massively overstretched as it is…. and the next 5 months are a nightmare (3 trips to us… 1 to france.. 1 to uk….1 to germany)

for me….. feminism grew out of noble and laudable goals… but once they were achieved… they are now more and more obsessed with trivial first world issues.  Most of which I dont give a shit about…. but when you get half a million dollars to study feminist glaciology…. it undermines the credibility of science. http://phg.sagepub.com/content/early/2016/01/08/0309132515623368.abstract

I’ve got nothing against the idea of a discussion.  However for me the obvious place to have such a discussion is on my channel.  More eyes will see it.

Part of me kinda likes the idea… if only cos so few are willing to stand forward and openly defend feminism.

Best wishes,

Phil

[Note added to transcript: I address Mason’s comment re. that glaciology paper in the blog post to which I refer below (see e-mail sent 01/04/2016)]


From: Moriarty Philip
Sent: 15 March 2016 14:34
To: ‘Thunder Foot’
Subject: RE: Sexism in science

Hi, Phil.

Thanks for responding. While I’d be happy to discuss this on your channel, I much prefer to debate via the written word. We’re both academic researchers – it’s our natural “forum” (!). Although I work with Brady Haran quite a bit on the Sixty Symbols videos, I don’t actually watch too many science(-related) videos online – I prefer to read.

Perhaps there’s a way of combining both? What if I write a blog post that lays out my thoughts/concerns and you respond via your channel? I’d be then happy to either respond in writing via my blog or upload a YouTube video in response.

Would that work? There’s no urgency, of course, but, as you say, I think it’d be good to debate this. (I’ve got a trip to Ethiopia coming up at the end of the month so I’d aim to write the blog post before Easter).

Best wishes,

Philip


From: Moriarty Philip
Sent: 01 April 2016 16:54
To: Thunder Foot
Subject: Blog post

Dera [sic] Phil,

Here’s the blog post I mentioned in my previous message: https://muircheartblog.wordpress.com/2016/03/27/when-atheists-ape-creationists-the-fallacies-of-the-anti-feminist/

Best wishes,

Philip


From: Moriarty Philip
Sent: 24 May 2016 16:10
To: Thunder Foot
Subject: Debate?

Phil,

[Please excuse this e-mail out of the blue. I’m exam marking at the moment and any displacement activity I can find is seized upon…]

I don’t know whether you got a chance to read that blog post?

I’ve been astounded at the level of (wilful?) ignorance of the scientific method — and the naïve credulity in the idea that a peer-reviewed paper is always correct! – by those posting comments under a video Kristi Winters made about the post (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dwTxXkh9_Hc ). It’s rather dispiriting that those who would claim that they debate rationally and scientifically have such a weak understanding of just how science works.

You mentioned previously that you’d be happy to debate the sexual dimorphism issue at your channel. If you’re still up for it, I’d be keen, particularly if we could broaden the discussion out to cover just how science works (and that cherry-picking a paper on the basis of a two-minute Google search for keywords and crying “Gotcha” is not credible scientifically).

The end of term is nearing and once I get examiners meetings (and external examiners meetings in Ireland) out of the way, I could find some time for a debate in late June/early July if that worked for you?

Best wishes,

Philip

Philip Moriarty

Professor of Physics and Undergraduate Admissions Tutor, School of Physics & Astronomy, University of Nottingham


From: Thunder Foot
Sent: 24 May 2016 18:57
To: Philip Moriarty
Subject: RE: Debate?

meh… maybe you should consider the option you got your head stuck up your ass.

see… at least I extend you the courtesy of talking to your face as I would behind your back.

FYI, the reason I stick with my ‘childish pseudonym’ is cos I like to think that an idea stands on its merit.

Keep up the good fight though, its always good to see a white man infantalizing women in the name of feminism to the extent that he believes they cant do physics unless someone hold their hands and encourages them, and then having the lack of self awareness to think that ‘he just wants women treated as equals’

oh…. n btw… Im at a reactor doing an experiment…. and Ill be doing another at another reactor at the end of june.
enjoy your teachin or markin…. or whatever it is youre doin

🙂

Thunderf00t


From: Moriarty Philip
Sent: 02 June 2016 09:24
To: ‘Thunder Foot’
Subject: RE: Debate?

Good morning, Phil(ip).

My apologies for the very long delay in responding. It’s been exam- and report-marking season. EPSRC also decided to ‘helpfully’ have the deadline for their latest strategic equipment fund round of applications coincide with the exam period.

From the rather aggrieved – and, it must be said, somewhat less-than-erudite — flavour of your reply, should I take it that you’re not particularly keen to debate the issue of gender balance in physics with me? Should I take your response as a heartfelt “no”?

If so, that’s a great shame, particularly as, for example, there’s this IOP-organised meeting coming up soon: https://www.iopconferences.org/iop/frontend/reg/thome.csp?pageID=488193&eventID=923&eventID=923&CSPCHD=0040032r0000shoPIa5nUEwhzHfdbrhpcMvxnnotaDY1OpOme$

A debate re. your evidence-free claim that the gender balance in physics is dominated by sexual dimorphism would have been especially timely in the context of that IOP event.

Nonetheless, I can understand entirely your reticence to debate. Remarkably, in the space of just a few short  (and exceptionally poorly punctuated*) lines, you manage to make a considerable number of entirely unfounded claims and provide no justification or evidence for your assertions. This is hardly the most encouraging response when it comes to the potential for a well-informed and productive debate.

Let’s deal with your responses, such as they are, one at a time, and in order of appearance.

“meh… maybe you should consider the option you got your head stuck up your ass.”

You’re in your forties, Philip, and a reasonably accomplished postdoctoral researcher with a PhD in chemistry. I can’t believe it’s entirely beyond your wit to address my points without sounding like a seven year old child in a playground? (Actually, that’s rather unfair of me. My son is seven and he’s capable of much wittier and pithier ripostes than “Hurr..hurr..head up your ass”.) Moreover, last time I checked you were British. Surely you mean “…head stuck up your arse”?

“see… at least I extend you the courtesy of talking to your face as I would behind your back.”

This is a remarkable assertion and shows a complete absence of any type of thought, critical or otherwise. In what sense am I speaking “behind your back”? I sent you a link to the blog post I wrote, which was critical of you, over two months ago, i.e. directly after I wrote it. You didn’t respond.

I then sent you a link to the discussion – on a public forum – under Kristi’s video. In other words, I brought my comments to your attention. In just what sense is this “speaking behind your back”? I was entirely open and honest with you – I sent you the links. Moreover — and I’ll have more to say on this below — I post everything online under my own name. I do not hide behind a pseudonym.

YouTube and the WordPress blog are public platforms. Everything I have said about you there has been said in the open. If you are keen on making all of our exchanges public, I would be very happy indeed to post this e-mail thread online. Let me know if you’d like me to do that.

It’s good, however, that, on this point at least, I agree entirely with you – openness and transparency online are extremely important. I have no time at all for the intellectual cowardice – or, too often, just basic rank cowardice — that so often underpins online ‘communication’. (See, for example, https://muircheart.wordpress.com/2015/09/04/we-are-anonymous-we-are-legion-we-are-mostly-harmful/ and https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/should-post-publication-peer-review-be-anonymous .)

So, as I say, let me know if you’d like me to post this exchange online just so everything remains above board and all of my comments to you are publicly viewable.

“FYI, the reason I stick with my ‘childish pseudonym’ is cos I like to think that an idea stands on its merit.” 

I’ve heard this type of argument before. Repeatedly. I find it utterly unconvincing for the reasons discussed in the blog post and THE article linked to above, and in this: https://muircheart.wordpress.com/2015/12/09/where-two-tribes-go-to-roar/

Context is key in debate. Anonymity sets up an asymmetry in communication – see the editorial by Mike Blatt that is cited in the THE article — that is too often merely a means for one of the proponents in the debate to “cover their arse” and not have to stand behind the points they’re making. It’s basic intellectual cowardice in so many cases. (There are exceptions, but you’re not one of them).

If you’re of the opinion that ideas should stand on their merit, why are you included as “Mason, PE” (or similar) in the list of authors on the scientific papers to which you’ve contributed? Why not submit the papers pseudonymously?

This lack of coherence and self-consistency in your arguments is disappointing. But, and to reiterate what I said above, it puts your reticence to debate in context.

Keep up the good fight though, its always good to see a white man infantalizing women in the name of feminism to the extent that he believes they cant do physics unless someone hold their hands and encourages them, and then having the lack of self awareness to think that ‘he just wants women treated as equals’

Citation needed here. (And we both know just how flawed the traditional peer review system can be at times — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wLlA1w4OZWQ – so I’m not even asking for peer-reviewed citations. Blog posts will suffice. We should get beyond this idea that peer review represents some type of gold standard.).  Please show me where I have infantalized women – specific quotes would be helpful.

More importantly, your evidence-free mini-rant simply evades the issue. The blog post I wrote makes a very basic point. Please address that point without obfuscating about what you perceive as “infantalization”. Your claim is that the gender balance in physics is largely due to sexual dimorphism. Do you continue to stand behind that claim? If not, good – we can call an end to this exchange. If, however, you remain of the opinion that the 80:20 gender balance in physics is due to sexual dimorphism then please provide evidence for your claim. This is the core theme of that blog post.

As regards “infantalisation”, however, there’s an interesting point here. One of the key reasons I became a lecturer is that I thoroughly enjoy teaching. (I get just a little peeved when university teaching is seen by some as secondary to research. Even the language we use – “teaching load” – helps preserve this perception.) I’m interested not just in higher education but secondary and primary teaching and learning, and just how children’s perception of their abilities –coupled to positive and negative feedback – can affect their learning.

Go to a primary school and ask the infants/children there to draw a picture of a scientist. You know what they’ll draw, right? (Something like this: http://previews.123rf.com/images/sararoom/sararoom1303/sararoom130300042/18430036-Vector-illustration-of-Cartoon-Scientist-Stock-Vector-science.jpg ) I’ve done this ‘experiment’ quite a few times.

Are you really saying we shouldn’t challenge that stereotype?  (And there’s been very good progress in this regard by the RS, RSC, IOP, and RCUK of late).

If your (tediously clichéd) ‘counter-argument’ is going to be something along the lines of “Well, kids should just toughen up. They should learn to do whatever they like regardless of feedback and societal pressures”, consider just why you like to hide behind a pseudonym. Is it possibly because you’d take feedback rather more personally if you had the intellectual courage to put your given name to your arguments?

”oh…. n btw… Im at a reactor doing an experiment…. and Ill be doing another at another reactor at the end of june. enjoy your teachin or markin…. or whatever it is youre doin 🙂 Thunderf00t

I’ll re-re-reiterate, Phil. You’re in your forties. You’re a research scientist. You’re clearly reasonably bright. It’s disappointing to have to read this type of lazy, unpunctuated, barely literate response* to the detailed arguments I’ve made. If you’d like to reconsider the possibility of a debate, I’m fairly flexible during the summer, although I’d prefer to avoid August due to holidays and the A-level results period (as I’m UG admissions tutor).

Philip

P.S. Do let me know if you’d like me to post this online, just to keep all of our exchanges open and transparent.

*If you’re going to argue that grammar and punctuation are not important in (science) communication, please address the points I make here: https://muircheart.wordpress.com/2015/01/22/moriarty-physicists-punctuation-communication/

In addition to those points about the value of words in physics (and, more generally, in the physical sciences), a lack of connectivity and coherence in writing can often be indicative of poorly organised and incoherent thinking. You might like to bear this in mind, particularly when it comes to writing grant proposals and the like.


From: Thunder Foot
Sent: 02 June 2016 15:24
To: Philip Moriarty
Subject: RE: Debate?

meh… dunno how old you are…. but learn brevity.

tl:dr


From: Moriarty Philip
Sent: 02 June 2016 21:04
To: ‘Thunder Foot’
Subject: RE: Debate?

Dear Phil,

I’m enjoying this exchange a great deal. It’s remarkably informative, despite – actually, make that because of — the semi-literate brevity and amusingly weak evasiveness of your responses.

You’re a research scientist with a PhD who apparently can’t parse a few paragraphs of text? It’s  beyond your reading comprehension and debating capabilities to respond, in grammatically correct and coherently phrased English, to a detailed rebuttal of your evidence-free ‘arguments’? Really?

Instead we get a thoroughly weak, wholly unconvincing, and astoundingly lazy “TL;DR”.

Now, either your reading level is below that of the average 12 year old or you’re being willfully evasive for reasons that we both know.

All this from someone who is ostensibly a proponent of rational, informed debate and a pioneer (*cough*) of the PEARL methodology?

As I said, wholly unconvincing.

It’s also rather funny to be told of the virtues of brevity by someone who has chewed up a great deal of internet bandwidth on lengthy rants and diatribes.

Just in case you didn’t make it to this point – *Too many words. So many words. How can anyone ever process that many big words? And they’re polysyllabic too. That’s. Just. Not. Cricket.* — I’ll send you a separate e-mail, written in monosyllabic text so it won’t challenge your reading comprehension too much, with the key points.

Philip

Philip Moriarty, Professor of Physics and Undergraduate Admissions Tutor, School of Physics & Astronomy, University of Nottingham


From: Moriarty Philip
Sent: 02 June 2016 21:52
To: ‘Thunder Foot’
Subject: RE: Debate?

<TL;DR mode mail>

<Mono>

O.K. Phil, here we go…

  1. Is it OK to post our mail trail on the web?
  2. Where are the ‘facts’ that back up your claims? See  https://muircheart.wordpress.com/2016/03/27/when-atheists-ape-creationists-the-fallacies-of-the-anti-feminist/
  3. Do you want to de-bate* on the web? If so, when?

</Mono>

</ TL;DR mode mail>

There you go. Couldn’t put it more simply.

[*Yes, I cheated here. Sorry. Was going to go with “rap” as the closest monosyllabic word but just couldn’t bring myself to write that. Too painfully naff. I’ll just have to hope you can parse the polysyllabic word “debate” now that I’ve broken it down for you. If that doesn’t work, we could perhaps try phonetics?]

Note that I have been involved in quite a number of debates in the past. None of those with whom I’ve previously debated have been so lazy and disingenuous as to respond with, in essence, “You write too much. TL;DR”

Here are a few examples of what real debate (based on reasoned logic (RL)) looks like:

http://www.softmachines.org/wordpress/?p=70

http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/~ppzstm/pdfs/papers/2010/kealey_public.pdf

http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/~ppzstm/pdfs/papers/2008/doubleday_should.pdf

If you check – though, be warned, there are lots of words (literally thousands) and you may find it challenging – you’ll not find a single “TL;DR” in those debates.

As I said in my previous messages, given that you are very keen on openness and transparency in debate, I’m sure that you’ll be happy for our email exchange to be posted online? [Point 1 above].

I also look forward to hearing from you re. a definitive answer re. a debate. [Point 3 above]. Although I suspect that once again you’ll disingenuously evade the issue (for the third time running). It’d be good if I was wrong on this matter of evasion and you salvaged some semblance of credibility…

[And if it makes you feel more comfortable,  I promise to use your “Thunderfoot” handle during the debate. Can’t say fairer than that now, can I? I know how important your pseudonymous safe space is to you. It’s clearly challenging for you to be open and honest with your identity. It just takes a little bit of courage. If you take it slowly, in stages, I’m sure you’ll eventually be able to out-grow your reliance on silly monikers.]

All the very best,

Your fellow physical chemist/chemical physicist,

Philip


From: Moriarty Philip
Sent: 02 June 2016 21:58
To: ‘Thunder Foot’
Subject: RE: Debate?

Tsk. Dammit.

Of course “OK” isn’t monosyllabic. My sincerest apologies.

Let me modify that so that it’s easier for you to parse…

“1. Is it fine to post our mail trail on the web?”

Hope that helps.

Philip


From: Moriarty Philip
Sent: 02 June 2016 22:06
To: ‘Thunder Foot’
Subject: RE: Debate?

P.S. To save you some time, if I don’t receive a response from you before next week I’ll assume you’re happy for our e-mail exchange to be posted online.


From: Thunder Foot
Sent: 05 June 2016 22:42
To: Philip Moriarty
Subject: RE: Debate?

lol… replies to ‘learn brevity’ with FOUR emails.

however, you trolling effort is good.


From: Moriarty Philip
Sent: 06 June 2016 05:19
To: ‘Thunder Foot’
Subject: RE: Debate?

Dear Philip,

So yet again you avoid answering the very simple questions I asked. That’s a quite remarkable – and, once again, deeply amusing — level of disingenuity, evasion, hypocrisy and spinelessness.

As for “trolling”, you could perhaps consult a dictionary as to the definition of that term. Moreover, and correct me if I’m wrong, but haven’t you spent quite a bit of your time online railing against “professional victims”? That you’d now weakly cry “troll” instead of addressing my points is beyond ironic.

I have asked you to back up your claims with evidence. Simple as that. Your inability to do so, and with such a lack of maturity in communication, speaks volumes.

I’ll write a blog post and make a short accompanying video about your inability to (i) address the points made in the blog post (and elsewhere), and (ii) to communicate like an adult. I won’t quote from your e-mails (because you lack the integrity to respond to my request about posting our exchange online) but it’s not as if I can’t find similar vacuous comments from you online. Indeed, I’m spoilt for choice.

My expectations were low, Philip, but I’ve been genuinely astounded by your behaviour in this exchange. You’re in your forties yet you respond with all the wit and sophistication of a 10 year old who hasn’t got a particularly good grasp of the rudiments of grammar and punctuation, let alone an understanding of how to debate.

Disappointing, but hardly unexpected.

Philip


From: Thunder Foot
Sent: 06 June 2016 08:39
To: Philip Moriarty
Subject: RE: Debate?

Oh noes! the nottingham prof. is gonna to publish the his last half dozen emales where he trys to troll me with childisy insults! Thatll shows he a grown up!

Does this mean we not friends anymore? Yknow phil if I thought u werent my friend, I just dont think I could bear it.


From: Moriarty Philip
Sent: 06 June 2016 12:34
To: ‘Thunder Foot’
Subject: RE: Debate?

Good morning once again, Philip.

No “TL;DR” this time? Interesting. It seems that you indeed have quite some difficulty parsing arguments written in anything but the simplest of words. I’m afraid, however, that I’m not going to continue to reduce my writing to <mono> mode simply to make up for the deficiencies in your reading comprehension. You’re just going to have to put the effort in (or resort yet again to the lazy “TL;DR”).

Nonetheless, and as I’ve said before, I’m really enjoying this exchange. You continue to make me laugh a great deal. I particularly like being chastised for “childisy insults” by someone who opens up their message with “Oh noes!” and closes with “Yknow phil if I thought u werent my friend, I just dont think I could bear it.”

Fantastic.

Given your clear and demonstrable lack of ability/unwillingness to parse even the most basic of arguments  — “TL;DR”, remember? – let me clarify the difference between groundless/childish insults and pointing out simple home truths, Philip.

  1. I said that you were evasive. This is demonstrably the case. You’ve yet to address the points in the blog post, despite numerous requests. I asked for some evidence of your claims re. sexual dimorphism underpinning aptitude/preference for physics. You’ve provided nothing but a series of replies, for want of a better word, which have been vacuous in the extreme.
  1. I said that you were disingenuous/dishonest. I stand by this until you provide evidence to the contrary. You have banged on at length about the importance of evidence in a lengthy series of videos. You have even self-importantly proclaimed yourself to be a “PEARL”-ist. (Did I mention that you make me laugh a great deal? For a grumpy old Irish bastard like me that’s a real talent  you have.) Yet when challenged to provide evidence for a major claim you made about gender balance in physics, you repeatedly refuse to respond. Instead you resort to “TL;DR”. This is hardly “reasoned logic” now, is it? Thus, there is an inherent disingenuity and dishonesty in your responses.
  1. I said that you were childish in your responses. You need only read over your e-mail messages to see this. (Admittedly, having to switch to <TL;DR> and <Mono> mode to respond to you is hardly how adults should communicate but given that you lacked the courtesy and integrity to address the points I made in a reasoned and reasonable way, I was left with no choice. In any case, it seems that <Mono> mode is indeed useful as a means of extracting a response from you). I also said that your ability to communicate was, respectively, below that of a 12 year old, a 10 year old, and a 7 year old. I realise it’s a long time since you’ve been at primary/secondary school — and I don’t believe you have kids? (Excuse me if I got that wrong) — so you might have lost track of typical writing abilities in Year 2, Year 5, and Year 7.
  1. I said that your reading comprehension and debating skills were extremely poor. You have singularly failed to address any of my points. You have responded on more than one occasion with “TL;DR”. That not only highlights an exceptional level of immaturity but clearly shows that your claims to value reasoned debate are empty.

I’m assuming from the sledgehammer sarcasm of your most recent response that you’re more than happy for me to post our exchange online?

I look forward to your next response. My hopes aren’t high that it’ll be of any higher quality than your previous replies, but I’m hoping that at some point you’ll muster the integrity and wit to make this ‘debate’ a little more challenging for me. In the meantime, however, I’m very happy to continue chuckling.

Philip

P.S. Note that I include my affiliation below because while one aspect of this exchange is indeed not connected with my role at Nottingham, as an admissions tutor I dislike seeing unjustified, uninformed, and evidence-free claims about aptitude/preference for physics being made.


From: Moriarty Philip
Sent: 06 June 2016 13:22
To: ‘Thunder Foot’
Subject: RE: Debate?

P.S. Apologies. I forgot to say that, given your inability to communicate in any type of mature manner,  you may not be aware of the appropriate protocols.

When I say “Is it OK to publish our exchange online at my blog?”, there are two possible responses:

  1. Yes, that’s fine.
  2. No, I’d prefer you didn’t.

It’s a shame that we have to reduce it to this, but I’d appreciate either a response of “1” or “2”. Evading the question yet again will simply underpin your lack of honesty and intellectual integrity.

Thank you.

Philip


From: Thunder Foot
Sent: 06 June 2016 14:01
To: Philip Moriarty
Subject: RE: Debate?

youre lack of self-awereness amuzes me,


From: Moriarty Philip
Sent: 06 June 2016 14:24
To: ‘Thunder Foot’
Subject: RE: Debate?

Dear Philip,

So, yet another evasion. What’s that, seven and counting at this stage?

What a remarkable lack of integrity. As you’re never slow to point out, you’re a scientist. You’re meant to base your arguments on an honest analysis of data and evidence. I’ve not experienced anywhere near this level of dishonesty, evasion, and non-existent argumentation in any debate in which I’ve been involved previously. That includes a number of lengthy debates about religion (stemming, for example, from this: https://muircheart.wordpress.com/2015/06/02/sure-youre-not-meant-to-take-it-seriously/ )

So, well done on setting that particular precedent — those of faith have soundly thrashed you when it comes to the ability to debate. That’s just what those of us who are atheists really need: a nu-atheist (and, lest we forget, self-proclaimed PEARL-ist) with a demonstrated inability to address rational arguments in anything approaching a mature, considered and logical fashion.

Why is it that I also get the strong impression that you’re patting yourself on the back for your “ironic” use of deliberate misspelling? That really would take the childishness to another level. It simultaneously ups the comedy factor by quite a large amount, however, so, please, keep it coming. You’re brightening up my afternoon immensely.

Philip


From: Thunder Foot
Sent: 06 June 2016 15:08
To: Philip Moriarty
Subject: RE: Debate?

meh…. okay… you’re just to dumb to realize when youre being trolled.

However honestly, while trolling you is kinda fun…. oh who am i kidding… ive not laughed so hard for ages.. (OH PLEASE, for the love of god publish the emails)…… the reality im just way too busy for this sort of petty crap.

thanks for playing….oh n next time trying being honest, and you might find it reciprocated.

-end-of-line-


From: Philip Moriarty
Sent: 06 June 2016 15:25
To: Thunder Foot
Subject: RE: Debate?

Thank you, Philip. On the seventh/eighth/nth attempt, you finally respond to a request to publish the e-mail trail. I appreciate this.

Note, however, that you still have evaded responding to the points made in the original post. It’s lazy, immature and disingenuous in the extreme to now state “Oh, I’m just trolling you”.

You made a particular, and specific claim: sexual dimorphism underpins aptitude/preference for physics. And now, despite all your assertions about your PEARL credentials, you behave just like those you’ve criticised in the past. You fail to provide evidence and resort to a petty, lazy, and entirely unconvincing, “Oh, I’m just too busy for this”.

What you mean is that when faced with a comprehensive rebuttal of your evidence-free claims, you fold.

To say that “You’re just too busy for this” is entirely transparent nonsense. You spend a great deal of your life online slagging off all and sundry. Shooting down creationist arguments is simple; it’s like taking out fish in a barrel. Any scientist with even a modicum of debating aptitude can do this. When, instead, you’re asked to justify your evidence-free claims in the context of a slightly more challenging argument, I’ll say it again — you fold. Entirely. And resort to breathtakingly immature retorts.

But, once again, thanks for finally having the decency to stop evading my question about publishing the email trail. If you’d had the courtesy to do this right from the start I’d not have had to be so irritatingly persistent. Sometimes, however, and particularly with those who are being disingenuous from the off, that level of persistence is necessary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Uwlsd8RAoqI

I’ll send you a link to the post and video when they go online.

Philip


 

I wasn’t going to menshn this again, but…

I really was not planning to revisit the Tim Hunt debacle. I’ve already written a lengthy post about it (which led to quite a number of online debates and exchanges via Twitter, blog comments, and YouTube — some more ill-tempered than others). But my e-mail inbox filled up again yesterday afternoon with quite a number of messages pointing me to Louise Mensch‘s contributions to the story — of which I was more than aware — and, more importantly, alerting me to the fact that Evan Harris had weighed into the debate. (In case you were wondering about the title of this post, it was inspired by Mensch). Harris’ involvement had, for some reason, passed me by.

Evan Harris is someone for whom I have a great deal of respect. It was a great shame he lost his seat in parliament by such a small margin back in 2010 as he was a dedicated MP, the Lib Dems’ spokesman for science from 2005, and an extremely effective member of the Science and Technology Select Committee from 2003 until 2010. The scientific community in the UK owes him a debt of gratitude for his sterling work during that time. The fact that he’s a patron of the British Humanist Association also doesn’t hurt. (As this post might betray, I’m also a card-carrying member of the BHA).

So I was surprised to see that Evan had called Mensch’s version of the events “forensic” and that he adopted a position on the Hunt furore which was rather counter (to put it mildly) to that of Dorothy Bishop, David Colquhoun, and Sylvia McLain, all of whom Mensch criticises in her blog post (and all of whom I agree with on the matter of Hunt’s comments). Harris’ twitter timeline would also seem to imply that he is of the opinion that Hunt’s comments were merely a harmless/misjudged joke that was taken out of context and that the UCL and Royal Society overreacted:

The bit I find most perplexing and bizarre in all of this is that criticism of Hunt (and the loss of his honorary position at UCL) is interpreted so often in terms of infringement of free speech/academic freedom. I’ve posited the following scenario, which I’ve described in comments threads elsewhere, during various discussions with colleagues. I wonder what Harris’ (or, indeed, Mensch’s) response to the questions at the end might be?


I’m undergraduate admissions tutor for the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Nottingham. A couple of weeks ago I stood up in front of hundreds of potential applicants and their parents for two days running at our open days and gave talks about the teaching and research we do in the School and the various aspects of the physics courses available at Nottingham.

Let’s say that I made the following “gag” at some point during my open day talk (or, indeed, opened up with it):

“Let me tell you about my trouble with girls in physics courses. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry. Perhaps we should make separate labs for boys and girls taking our courses?

Now, seriously, I’m impressed by the strides made by girls in our physics courses over the years I’ve been at Nottingham. Science needs women, and you should do science, despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me.”

Then, when asked by a student during the Q&A session at the end of my talk to clarify my comments, I say:

“I’m really sorry if I have caused any offence. I was only being honest.”.

Would my Head of School be justified in calling me into his office, explaining why my comments weren’t entirely appropriate for that audience, and asking me to stand down from the Admissions Tutor aspect of my job?

…or would that be a violation of my academic freedom?