“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)

Politics. Perception. Philosophy. And Physics.

Today is the start of the new academic year at the University of Nottingham (UoN) and, as ever, it crept up on me and then leapt out with a fulsome “Gotcha”. Summer flies by so very quickly. I’ll be meeting my new 1st year tutees this afternoon to sort out when we’re going to have tutorials and, of course, to get to know them. One of the great things about the academic life is watching tutees progress over the course of their degree from that first “getting to know each other” meeting to when they graduate.

The UoN has introduced a considerable number of changes to the “student experience” of late via its Project Transform process. I’ve vented my spleen about this previously but it’s a subject to which I’ll be returning in the coming weeks because Transform says an awful lot about the state of modern universities.

For now, I’m preparing for a module entitled “The Politics, Perception and Philosophy of Physics” (F34PPP) that I run in the autumn semester. This is a somewhat untraditional physics module because, for one thing, it’s almost entirely devoid of mathematics. I thoroughly enjoy  F34PPP each year (despite this amathematical heresy) because of the engagement and enthusiasm of the students. The module is very much based on their contributions — I am more of a mediator than a lecturer.

STEM students are sometimes criticised (usually by Simon Jenkins) for having poorly developed communication skills. This is an especially irritating stereotype in the context of the PPP module, where I have been deeply impressed by the quality of the writing the students submit. As I discuss in the video below (an  overview of the module), I’m not alone in recognising this: articles submitted as F34PPP coursework have been published in Physics World, the flagship magazine of the Institute of Physics.

 

In the video I note that my intention is to upload a weekly video for each session of the module. I’m going to do my utmost to keep this promise and, moreover, to accompany each of those videos with a short(ish) blog post. (But, to cover my back, I’ll just note in advance that the best laid schemes gang aft agley…)

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


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Badly.

Appallingly badly.

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

Not clever.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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