Education, Features, Science / Tech

Should We “Stop Equating ‘Science’ With Truth”?

Actually: no.

In the modern world, there are ever fewer reasons to maintain the distinct roles of men and women, which evolved over millions of years. But to imagine that we are not living with that inheritance is to reject not just science, but all forms of logic and reason.

The message that liberates women is not: men and women are the same, and anyone who tells you different is oppressing you. The message that liberates women is: men and women are different. (And in fact, everyone who is intellectually honest knows this—see Geoffrey Miller’s excellent point regarding the central inconsistency in the arguments being presented by the control-left.) And not only are men and women different at a population level, but our distinct strengths and interests allow for greater possibility of emergence in collaboration, in problem-solving, and in progress, than if we work in echo chambers that look and think exactly like ourselves. Shutting down dissent is a classic authoritarian move, and will not result in less oppression. You will send the dissenters underground, and they will seek truth without you.

Evolutionary biology has been through this, over and over and over again. There are straw men. No, the co-option of science by those with a political agenda does not put the lie to the science that was co-opted. Social Darwinism is not Darwinism. You can put that one to rest. There are pseudo-scientific arguments from the left. Gould and Lewontin, back in 1979, argued, from a Marxist political motivation, that biologists are unduly biased in favor of adaptive explanations, which managed to confuse enough people for long enough that evolutionary biology largely stalled out. And, perhaps most alarming, there are concerns that what is true might be ugly. Those who would impose scientific taboos therefore suggest that it is incumbent on scientists not to ask certain questions, for fear that we reveal the ugly. That, I posit, is what underlies the backlash against Damore’s memo.

To which science and scientists need to respond: the truth is not in and of itself oppressive. To the extent that selection has produced differences between groups, such as differences in interests between men and women, denying the reality of that truth is hardly a legitimate response.

People often imagine that when a biologist argues that a pattern is the product of adaptive evolution, they are justifying that pattern. Philosophers have named this confusion the naturalistic fallacy, in which “what is” is conflated with “what ought to be.” Every good evolutionary biologist knows to dismantle such thinking in their own and their students’ heads as quickly as possible. Only by knowing what is, however, can we have a chance of structuring effective, society-wide responses that might actually change some of what is, when that is desirable.

Evolutionary biology is not ‘splaining, man- or otherwise. In contrast, the control-left and, and more specifically Chanda Prescod-Weinstein in her recent Slate piece, most definitely are.

Allow me to explain. ‘Splaining is different from explaining. ‘Splaining uses authority rather than logic to make points. By contrast, explaining, as in the way of science, tries to minimize assumptions and black boxes, and return to first principles whenever possible. Authority is not what scientists use to seek truth. Reality doesn’t care about degrees or gravitas. Working with the scientific method, we follow a meandering path, with many wrong turns and dead-ends. The scientific method can be remarkably inefficient, but we tolerate that inefficiency because of what it buys us: Science is self-correcting. Over time, our answers are ever better, and more in line with objective reality.

It is of course true that, in the European tradition of scientific investigation, white men have mostly been the people doing science. And who does the science will affect what questions are asked. But the scientific method, when deployed correctly, protects us from getting biased answers to those questions. More diversity amongst scientists will diversify the questions being asked, but should not alter the answers to those questions.

On Damore’s list of left vs. right biases (which he includes to point out that we need perspectives from both “sides”), he has “humans are inherently cooperative” as a left bias, and “humans are inherently competitive” as a right bias (read his original memo here). In this case, both are true, simultaneously. It doesn’t even really depend on context. Humans are both competitive and cooperative. Imagining one without the other is missing a big part of what it is to be human. Within evolutionary biology, this isn’t controversial. Furthermore, it’s true not just for humans, but for all species that are long-lived, social, and have both long developmental periods (childhoods) and significant generational overlap. It’s true within dolphins, parrots, wolves, chimps, crows, and elephants, to name just a few. Competition for resources—be those resources food, water, mates, habitat, reputation, or something else—is always present. But sociality is inherently cooperative, and sociality has evolved and persisted many, many times, across a diversity of environmental, developmental, and genetic landscapes.

It is also true that a basic misunderstanding of descriptive statistics—of population-level thinking—pervades the backlash to the Google memo. Damore includes this graphic, and writes, “many of these differences are small and there’s significant overlap between men and women, so you can’t say anything about an individual given these population level distributions.”

An illustration from James Damore’s memo contrasting overlapping bell curves with a binary.

A binary population (as in the lower graph) is one in which are there are two and only two possible states, and those states themselves are invariant. On and off, ones and zeroes. Binaries exist in the world, but the more complex the system, the more emergent the question. Within science, the farther from physics and math, and the closer towards biology you get, the less binary the landscape is.

A bimodal population, by comparison (as in the upper graph), also has two states, but within each of those states, there is variance. Average individuals from the two states will be different in predictable directions: on average, men are taller than women. But, depending on how far apart those two modes are, individuals who belong to population one may look much more like individuals from population two. This does not put the lie to the category—we all know some very tall women. It reinforces the fact that there is variance in the population. Variance is not a refutation of biology; it is what biology, in the form of selection, acts on to sculpt organisms from noise.

There are male brains and there are female brains. But it’s not a binary. When, as the humans that we are, we categorize things, sometimes there are two possibilities, sometimes three, sometimes more. With mammalian sex, there are two. But identifying that there are two categories is not the same thing as saying that there is no variation within those categories. To imagine that two categories means rigid adherence to one of two ways of being is a failure of population-level thinking. And it is a failure of logic, too.

Some categories have members that are indeed invariant. Everywhere that gold atoms show up in the Universe, they are the same. Each isotope is invariant. But individual horses, and strains of salmonella, and male brains, do not all look alike. They are simultaneously of a type, and distinct within that type.

Male raptors are, on average, smaller than female raptors. Male frogs are, almost universally, more talkative than female frogs. Male humans tend to be stronger, shorter lived, and more interested in “things” than female humans.

Male and female are distinct and real. There are multiple levels on which to ascertain maleness and femaleness, and in some people, chromosomal, phenotypic, and brain sex aren’t the same. But the overwhelming majority of humans have convergence between their chromosomal, phenotypic, and brain sex. When we look at male brains and female brains, there are differences. Recognizing difference is not sexist, or oppressive. It is human.

Perhaps we should, in the spirit of inquiry and logic and the values of the Enlightenment, focus on understanding what is true, rather than throwing temper tantrums because we don’t like what’s true. Then we can begin to disentangle societal gender roles from the rule book of evolutionary sex differences that gave rise to them.   Because the deepest truth is that those roles have an ancient and important meaning, which is now desperately out of date.

Filed under: Education, Features, Science / Tech

by

Heather E. Heying is a professor of evolutionary biology at The Evergreen State College. She has a PhD in Biology from the University of Michigan, where her dissertation on evolutionary ecology and sexual selection in Madagascan poison frogs won the university’s top honor. For the last 15 years, she has been teaching undergraduates how to think critically, in part through exploring remote sites in the neotropics. She is also the author of 'Antipode,' an investigation of life and research in Madagascar.

43 Comments

  1. peter says

    you are joking right ? The author is from Evergreen ? “a place where identity politics takes precedence over every other aspect of social intercourse…where it is acceptable to shout down those with whom you disagree”

    • Heather Heying is the wife of Bret Weinstein, the professor who was demonized and attacked by the ‘social justice’ fanatics at Evergreen State.

    • Andre says

      Whoops. That’s what happens when you don’t investigate.

    • Michael Simpson says

      Wow, you didn’t see that coming…. looks like the regressive left is the only people that come with an agenda.

    • S Monroe says

      “joking?” Why? Am I to understand that the views expressed in this essay are somehow “discredited” or are “diluted” because of where the Author teaches or to whom the author is married? How is that even prescient? Help me to understand your objection.

  2. you are joking right ? The author is from Evergreen ? “a place where identity politics takes precedence over every other aspect of social intercourse…where it is acceptable to shout down those with whom you disagree”

    So just ignore what she actually says and jump right in with the ad homs?

    • I think this is the exact opposite of what peter was doing. He was pointing out the irony.

      Maybe reading comprehension is really why we’re in this mess after all.

  3. peter says

    How does she keep her job at Evergreen with pieces like this ?

    • sestamibi says

      Sorry that several took your sarcasm too literally.

  4. Uri Harris says

    Excellent article. Thanks for writing. Your final paragraph is especially insightful and relevant, I think.

  5. How does she keep her job at Evergreen with pieces like this ?

    Are you going to address anything she actually wrote or continue to double down on being a dick?

    • peter says

      wtf ? I loved the article but got the shock of my life when I got to the end and read where the author worked. Interesting to hear who she is married to..

    • Agkistro says

      “Address anything she wrote”? I *agree* with everything she wrote and I still think she’s in danger of losing her job. What are you talking about?

  6. Fish says

    To be honest, I think this article missed the point slightly.

    The question isn’t whether we should equate science with truth, or even why we should – the answers to both are patently obvious – but how, in a world where anti-intellectualism is on the rise and expertise is not considered any better than ignorance, how can we persuade people that scientists are worth listening to, and that objectivity is necessary to divine how the world really is, rather than how you want it to be.

    Of course, I don’t have the solutions to these problems, but postmodernism has no part in them. Universities should be places of enquiry and truth-seeking. A field entirely based on subjectivity, where bad ideas are held in equally high esteem to good ones and whose only contribution to society is to fuel a distrust of academics is only going to increase anti-intellectualism, and when proponents of such ideas are paraded as ‘experts’, well, it’s no wonder the general population doesn’t trust real experts!

  7. The responses to the memo strike me as the sort of aggression that people who are fearful turn to. And that the scientific claims he makes – though they are the ones being misrepresented and then criticized – are not actually what the people driving the outrage are upset about.

    I think the part that is triggering this aggression is the very portion of his argument that is being obscured: his argument that there are better ways to make Google an attractive place to work for both genders – ways that do not discriminate against men and Caucasians. He also is arguing that there is a stifling atmosphere towards discussion of corporate policies wherein everyone is free to express their opinions as long as they are within a very narrow Overton window and that is atmosphere is harming the company’s ability to adapt and grow.

    It appears to me that the company’s management team has essentially been controlling the culture through fear and intimidation to impose top-down mores while trying to create the facade that they are fostering the development of the mores through a process where they emerge from the interaction of the whole company. For the management team to do this, they must perceive the imposition of these mores by intimidation to result in an outcome they prefer to the alternatives – including the alternative where the suggestions made by the memo are adopted that pursue increased diversity in a different way than the quota system that the author feels is not working. Moreover it appears the management team fears the ending of that regime, which is kind of remarkable.

    • Al Korvus says

      There really is a reason why the media has been able to so brutally misrepresent what Damore wrote with such seeming authority and utter fear of backlash (libel and slander suits, etc). It’s because the radical left knows it has mainstream society in its pockets. If all the news outlet incorrectly proclaim that Damore is the worst sexist ever, nobody is frankly in a position to argue. Very few people in the world today are willing to stake their careers on their beliefs.

      • Please don’t mind if I edit you comment to make it match your obvious intent (with which I agree) : There really is a reason why the media has been able to so brutally misrepresent what Damore wrote with such seeming authority and utter LACK OF fear of backlash (libel and slander suits, etc).

  8. LFP2016 says

    Wonderful piece — kudos! Even more amazing that you’re from Evergreen (for now…).

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  10. Agkistro says

    I hope you took measures to protect yourself. Professors get fired for this kind of reasonableness these days.

  11. What is criminal is telling children they can change their sex. They cannot. They may deform themselves or allow doctors to deform them with surgery and drugs but they will not change their gender.

    This is the idiocy of a materialist mindset.

    We should stop pretending that a male can change gender to a female and vice-versa. There are only males and females but of course, a wealth of diversity in the expression of those two sexes.

    And let us not kid ourselves, the DNA creates the biology which shows some different effects and that is a reality. In addition, since many of those who want to be the other sex, end up as a parody of some stereotypical man or women, farce in the main, one can only wonder just what is going on in their minds.

    Why do men who want to be women end up mincing around like over-made-up women did in the Forties and Fifties? Why don’t they dress as many women do today? Because they don’t really want to be women, they want to wear the frocks. Ditto for females wanting to be males dragging on the overalls and short haircuts. I mean seriously. It is a joke.

  12. Gnarles Darwin says

    The statement quoted below is a non sequitor. Of scientists ask questions based on their biases as you say – even if they work against it – how does it follow that they will not inadvertently inject bias into their methodologies and conclusions? It doesn’t follow. The simplest answer is that yes, there would be bias at all stages of the scientific process, despite their best efforts.

    “More diversity amongst scientists will diversify the questions being asked, but should not alter the answers to those questions.”

    This paper describes ways that bias can impact every aspect of the scientific process:
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3900086/

    I actually haven’t seen any of the publications that are supposedly claiming that there are no differences between men and women, and you don’t cite any of them. I can’t take you seriously on that account.

    Further, you discuss biological differences between men and women, but do not discuss the role of genders – which are social, not biological, constructs – on the observed differences between men and women. I suspect this methodological flaw is a result of ideological bias, as well as the bias of the lens of your academic field. The memo you cite has several crucial errors and is full of full of bias. I’ll let a more qualified person than myself address that here: https://www.vox.com/the-big-idea/2017/8/11/16130452/google-memo-women-tech-biology-sexism

    Also: liberation for women lies in embracing differences? Why? You offer no explanation, no citations. Systems of oppression use difference to oppress. We’re well aware of real and constructed differences between genders. Liberation lies in accepting and acting on equality as humans (while also celebrating differences when appropriate).

    I’m all for inter-disciplinary approaches to research and learning, but I think you are stretching the tools of your particular field without even acknowledging social sciences. Modern human behavior cannot be reduced to biology.

    • Larry C says

      To take one point – gender roles, when compared to biological differences, are indeed social constructs – but they are also biological constructs. If you can admit that, at the very least in the past, men are more aggressive than women and are suited more for protecting women while, for example, they are gestating a child, something men cannot do, and a time during which women are much more vulnerable, you cannot help but understand that it is both biological and social.

      To exclude one or the other completely masks the science and hijacks it for a cause, not to find the truth. No, the bias being shown is by people who would try to tell us that there is no biological push on social evolution, that it is simply roles into which males, who are stronger, have pushed women into in order to oppress them.

  13. ardy says

    modern human behaviour cannot be reduced to anything apart from the reality of who you are and very few people in the wolrd understand this. You can attempt to build your edifices of what you think you understand but the reality is that it is an individuals work, often of their lifetimes.

    So therefore I find myself smiling at the futile attempts ofteh social sciences to understand human nature..I think George Bernard Shaw would wet himself at these painful and totally misleading attempts at understanding.

  14. David Taylor, MD, PhD says

    ” Gould and Lewontin, back in 1979, argued, from a Marxist political motivation, that biologists are unduly biased in favor of adaptive explanations…”

    Marxist political motivation??? And Prof. Heying teaches critical thinking?

    Apart from that, surely the obsession of evolutionary psychologists with “adaptive explanations” was clear — it was certainly the object of a lot of satire about evolutionary psychology.

  15. Great article, and in an ideal world is agree with the ‘no’ to the question in the title. However, given how the politics of both sides are allowing bad science to be so terribly skewed, I currently see a big difference between science and truth. I won’t bore you with examples, but false authority is rendering peer review useless in many academic circles. Medicine, climatology, and many more areas are subject to the whims of the people with the power to shame those with opposing views.

  16. NorEastern says

    Mathematics backed up by proofs are truth. Everything else has an associated confidence interval. Unfortunately 98% of people in America do not understand what a confidence interval means. Alas many social scientists do not either.

    • As I recall the discussion, Euclidean geometry relies on a premise that, when two lines intersect, they have one point in common. That is a sensible premise. The problem is that this crucial premise is not explicit among Euclid’s premises nor is it deducible from them. The point is that it is cautious to recall that even mathematical proofs thought valid for millenia might, must might, turn out to be erroneous. Further, even strong intuitions about mathematical truth may be mistaken. (Example: for every assertion true in a logical system, there must be a valid proof of that assertion.) “Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorem demonstrates that mathematics contains true statements that cannot be proved.”

      • Why did you put the last sentence in quotes? Who are you quoting? Why can’t I say: “Gödel’s incompleteness theorem warns us that every mathematical “truth” must rely upon at least one axiom that cannot be proven”?

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  19. sestamibi says

    One small correction: the graph does not represent a bimodal population. It represents two distinct unimodal populations.

  20. Echoing NorEastern, above, there is a difference between what is true and what is a fact. Science mostly deals with things that can be said to be a provable fact, given a set of axioms and given the methods used to establish the alleged fact.

    Truth is something different.

    I wish scientists of all stripes would confine themselves to facts and disclose their axioms. When they start talking about truths they are not scientists but priests.

    • Scott says

      Well put; axioms are the foundation of knowledge and claims to “truth” betray it’s instability.

  21. What the heck is the author babbling on about? It’s as if I’m starting to read half way through something. What does he mean by truth, who the bloody hell is Damore and his memo?

  22. Men and women are different? Gosh, thanks for telling us! What the bloody hell has this got to do with science though?? It’s something each and everyone of us observe throughout our lives.

  23. Lenny Schafer says

    Except for linguistics, there is no settled scientific definition of gender with regards to human behavior. “Transgender” is even more muddled with political polemics. Fallacious ouroboros constructions defy clarity.

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