All posts filed under: Science / Tech

The Rhetorical Trap at the Heart of the “Neurosexism” Debate

“Neurosexism,” “populist science,” “neurotrash,” the problem with using terms like these to describe scientific investigations of sex differences is that their use may be interpreted as hostile. “Not fair!” claim the espousers of these terms, who argue that they only ever use such terms for pseudoscience and media distortions, not robust and replicable studies. In a recent op-ed for The Guardian, Cordelia Fine—the author who coined the term “neurosexism”—together with Rebecca Jordan-Young, argue that they have never been prima facie opposed to sex differences research. Their only concern is that of scientific rigour. A great article about how science and feminism goes hand in handhttps://t.co/EKMoUDjhux — AUforsker/Lea (@AUforsker) April 15, 2017 In 2005, the British philosopher Nicholas Shackel proposed the term “Motte and Bailey Doctrine” for this type of argumentative style. Taking the name of the castle fortification, the “motte” is strong and is built high on an elevated patch of land and is easy to defend. By contrast, the “bailey” is built on lower, more exposed ground, and is much more difficult to defend …

Reviving “Essentialism” and Other Scientific Straw Men

Cordelia Fine’s latest attempt at human exceptionalism and biology denial Testosterone Rex has drawn rave reviews from (almost) everyone, from the popular press to Nature. Happy to go against this grain, I would like to suggest that these much-circulated rumours of the death of human nature have been somewhat exaggerated. Most of Fine’s targets are probably quite well deserved chunks of popular science, male chauvinism, and journalistic overreach. However, when she turns her sights on serious science she makes some rather egregious blunders. This is a pity—because there is much in the public understanding of sex differences that could really use some popular explication and myth busting. Let’s start with what is positive about the book. Many will find her anecdotal approach to be engaging and charming. I didn’t, but I’m a miserable old curmudgeon who wants to get to grips with the facts, not be reassured via an anecdote about kangaroo testicles that that the writer “doesn’t hate men really”. On this point: I’m always a little unsettled by people who feel the need …

Epigenetics Has Become Dangerously Fashionable

For the past few years, social scientists have been buzzing over a particular topic in molecular biology—gene regulation. The hype has been building steam for some time, but recently, it rocketed to the forefront of public discussion due to a widely circulated piece in the New Yorker. Articles on the topic are almost always fascinating: They often give the impression that this particular area of biology stands poised to solve huge mysteries of human development. While that conclusion may be appropriate in fields like medicine and other related disciplines, a number of enthusiasts have openly speculated about its ability to also explain lingering social ills like poverty, crime, and obesity. The trouble is, this last bit isn’t really a feeling shared by many of the genetics experts. Social scientists’ excitement surrounds what we can refer to broadly as transgenerational epigenetics. To understand why social scientists have become enamored with it, we must first consider basic genetics. Many metaphors exist for describing and understanding the genome; they all capture the reality that genes provide the information …

What Sadomasochism Can Teach Us About Human Sexuality

Like all good husbands, I took my wife to see the latest instalment of the Fifty Shades of Grey movie series—Fifty Shades Darker­­—on Valentine’s Day weekend. Admittedly, this romantic gesture was not entirely altruistic. As it happens, I am currently doing research on the role of dominance and submission in human sexuality. Although neither of us is in the “scene,” we are nonetheless swept up in the current cultural fascination with consensual sadomasochism, albeit for different reasons. My fascination stems from my general interest in human sexuality and its evolution. My field, evolutionary psychology, has been at the forefront of exploring human behavior through the evolutionary lens for more than two decades, and has made immense advances over the years. Although its greatest accomplishments are in the realm of sex differences and mating behavior, it is not confined to the sexual realm, as is evidenced by the increasing output of research on the evolution of morality,1 religion,2 and politics.3 Indeed, E. O. Wilson’s dream of a consilience of knowledge across the biological sciences and humanities is …

Not Everything Is An Interaction

Albert Einstein was a brilliant man. Whether his famous equation of E=mc2 means much to you or not, I think we can all concur on the intellectual prowess—and stunning hair—of Einstein. But where did his brilliance come from? Environment? Perhaps his parents fed him lots of fish (it’s supposed to be brain food, after all). Genetics? Surely Albert hit some sort of genetic lottery—oh that we should all be so lucky. Or does the answer reside in some combination of the two? How very enlightened: both genes and environment interact and intertwine to yield everything from the genius of Einstein to the comedic talent of Lewis Black. Surely, you cannot tease their impact apart; DNA and experience are hopelessly interlocked. Except, they’re not. Believing that they are is wrong; it’s a misleading mental shortcut that has largely sown confusion in the public about human development, and thus it needs to be retired. Despite strong genetic influences on IQ (and there are strong genetic influences on IQ), we can’t calculate the proportion of credit for Einstein’s intellect that …

A Tale of Two Bell Curves

“The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic” ~ John F. Kennedy 1962 To paraphrase Mark Twain, an infamous book is one that people castigate but do not read. Perhaps no modern work better fits this description than The Bell Curve by political scientist Charles Murray and the late psychologist Richard J. Herrnstein. Published in 1994, the book is a sprawling (872 pages) but surprisingly entertaining analysis of the increasing importance of cognitive ability in the United States. It also included two chapters that addressed well-known racial differences in IQ scores (chapters 13-14). After a few cautious and thoughtful reviews, the book was excoriated by academics and popular science writers alike. A kind of grotesque mythology grew around it. It was depicted as a tome of racial antipathy; a thinly veiled expression of its authors’ bigotry; an epic scientific fraud, full of slipshod scholarship and outright lies. As hostile reviews piled up, the real Bell Curve, a sober and judiciously argued …

Cordelia Fine’s “Testosterone Rex” — A Review

A review of Testosterone Rex, by Cordelia Fine. W.W. Norton and Company (January 2017) 272 pages.  “Scientism”. “Orientalism”. “Historicism”. The trouble with inventing a belief system and ascribing it to your opponents is that you might inadvertently have built a straw man. After all, nobody actively signs up to these supposed philosophies: they’re terms of criticism or abuse. One such nebulous belief system is the topic of psychologist Cordelia Fine’s new book, Testosterone Rex. Unconcerned by the straw-manning risk, Fine introduces the eponymous “Testosterone Rex” as the “story of sex and society” that holds that there are male brains and there are female brains, programmed by evolution to be irreconcilably different, with testosterone explaining males’ greater risk-taking, promiscuity, competitiveness, and dominance. Fine argues that modern science is the asteroid that wiped out this T-Rex, revealing subtler cultural—not biological—explanations for the sex differences we see in society. Fine’s first target is the ‘Bateman Gradient’, a seminal (excuse the pun) finding on sexual selection from 1940s experiments on fruit flies. Geneticist Angus Bateman found that the link …

Using Social Media Scientifically

It is often said that we need more science in our public debate. By this, it is usually meant that people should base their views on scientific facts, which have more authority than mere opinion. It is said that political leaders and public commentators should be both scientifically literate, and base their views on scientific findings where it is relevant to do so. While this is a noble goal, it is not what I’m proposing here. Instead, I’d like to argue that we should attempt, on a day-to-day basis, to approach social media and news consumption scientifically. What do I mean by ‘scientifically’? Social media, and the internet more broadly, have afforded us tremendous potential to access information, and to interact with people beyond our immediate social circles. Interacting with others helps us to develop our knowledge of the world by digesting information, disseminating it, or engaging in dialogue about it. We can test our views about the world—however informal or loosely formed they are—against the views of others. However, social media debates can often …

On Parenting and Parents

It’s been a little over a year since my first article on parenting appeared in the pages of Quillette. Soon after publication, the essay began receiving quite a bit of attention; both positive and negative. This is to be expected for a topic that is as personally relevant to people as this one. People either have children of their own, or know what it is like to be someone’s child. We all have skin in this part of the game. My argument in that essay was somewhat incendiary, as I was suggesting that little evidence exists for pervasive and long-lasting parenting influences on child development. I still maintain that position; not out of a personal bias, but simply because that is what the evidence demands of me. That said, this essay is about why parenting is arguably the single most important activity in which you will engage. This is true, not because you will mould your child’s intellect or personality like a potter. Rather, this is true because your child might write a similar essay about …

Why Powerful People Fail to Stop Bad Behavior by Their Underlings

Imagine you were recently promoted at work. You now command a higher salary, lead more people and control more of the organization’s resources. As such, you have more influence over strategy, more authority to hire and fire and more responsibility for your team’s outcomes. As you undertake your new role, however, you are also faced with evidence of an unethical business practice that plagues your organization. This practice is harmful, potentially embarrassing at best and possibly illegal at worst. In your new, more powerful position, would you be more or less likely to stop it than in your previous role? This situation is hardly unheard of and might even be common. Leaders often set goals but delegate responsibility for how they are achieved, providing leeway for unethical practices to creep in. Leaders also inherit business practices from their predecessors and gain visibility only as they achieve higher rank in the hierarchy. Unethical practices can become routine and taken for granted when embedded in the organization’s structures and processes. Consider the salespeople at Wells Fargo who …