Author: Christopher J. Ferguson

Resisting the Mourner’s Veto

Controversy recently erupted at Penguin Random House when it was announced that the company would be publishing Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson’s forthcoming book. Peterson rose to prominence in 2016 when he posted a series of videos on YouTube denouncing a Canadian law that, he claimed, would compel citizens to use gender-neutral pronouns upon demand. His forthright opposition to political correctness won him admiration and notoriety, transforming him into a lightning rod for the culture wars—admirers flocked to him as an icon of resistance to creeping left-wing authoritarianism and censorship, while detractors condemned him as a transphobe, a bigot, and even a white supremacist. In 2018, Peterson published his phenomenally successful self-help manual 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos before embarking on an international speaking tour of packed venues amid a cacophony of adulation and consternation. Now, Peterson is back following a period spent recuperating from poor health and his new book, entitled Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life, will almost certainly repeat the success of its predecessor. However, some of the …

The Futility of the Conservative War on Pornography

As we head into a tumultuous US election season, it is worth remembering that political parties can get trapped in partisan frameworks that cater to the loudest sections of their base, but which prevent them from appealing to a wider range of voters. Ideological litmus tests not only narrow appeal, but they cause politicians to pander, to disregard evidence, and to reject compromise in favor of rhetorical stridency. Social conservatives’ endlessly sputtering crusade over pornography is unusual in that it brings them into alliance with many radical feminists on the Left. Nevertheless, of the two main parties, it is the moral majoritarians in the Republican Party who have most frequently attempted to generate political capital by inveighing against pornography. This movement’s foundational moment was President Reagan’s Meese commission established to investigate the potential harms caused by pornography. The Meese Report, however, badly over-reached—even those who worry about the effects of pornography acknowledge it made unsubstantiated claims about its effects. Recent US presidential election years have seen promises to strengthen anti-pornography laws included as part of …

Are Gamer Stereotypes Accurate?

Back in 2014, the term “Gamergate” swarmed into public consciousness as major news outlets picked up the story of harassment of women—including developers, journalists, and fans—in the games industry. The Gamergate phenomenon began with concerns among some gamers that conflicts of interest between games journalism and the games industry were leading journalists to write unrealistically favorable reviews of products. These allegations were soon eclipsed, however, as several women involved in the games industry and related media alleged that they had become targets of abuse, threats of violence and rape, doxxing, and so on. In the public eye, this cemented the perception that Gamergate was associated with toxic misogyny, and that this kind of behavior was typical of gamers more generally. The result was that gamers, already commonly the source of stereotypes and various cultural prejudices, found themselves stigmatized as young, reactionary, mainly white, hetero male misogynists. For example, a widely circulated tumblr post portrayed gamer culture as awash with “toxicity,” “hysterical fits,” and “hatred of women.” “The gamer as an identity,” the author, Dan Golding …

Sex Differences in Cognition

In a previous post I examined the biological and social influences on sex and gender identity. Evidence suggests that biology plays a powerful role in the determination of sex as well as of gender identity, although social forces are also important particularly as they relate to gender role expression. In this essay I’ll examine the evidence surrounding a related controversial topic: whether or not there are cognitive differences between the sexes and, if so, whether they are biological or social in origin. In what follows, I’ll focus on individuals whose gender identity matches their biological sex. This leaves out nonbinary and transsexual persons, about whom there is far less research evidence. Nevertheless, given that transsexuals tend to have hypothalamuses that match their identified gender not their biological sex, it would be interesting to know if this produces cognitive differences as well. Some evidence suggests that the administration of sex hormones to those undergoing transition does influence cognition in expected ways. Other studies suggest that cognitive differences exist prior to hormone treatment, and that the cognition …

Is Gender a Social Construct?

About once every generation, it becomes intellectually fashionable to believe that gender or gender identity is a malleable trait, largely devoid of biological imperatives and at the mercy of parental initiatives or other social forces. Within time, these narratives meet an inevitable backlash from the natural sciences and the furor dies down, only to repeat itself twenty or so years later. We appear to be in the grip of another such cycle, with some individuals declaring that “Gender is a social construct!” and others pronouncing such ideas to be hogwash. This debate suffers from three problems. First, the terms involved—sex, gender, gender identity, and gender role—are often poorly defined, which causes a good deal of confusion. Second, and related, in many cases participants in this debate may be using the term gender to mean two different things, which causes them to talk past one another. And third, these debates are often dominated by the loudest and most inflexible voices on either side, reducing opportunities for dialogue about how nature and nurture interact to produce behavioral …

Anti-Pornography Campaigners’ Pseudo-Scientific Treadmill

Recently it was reported that Pornhub had made a short adult film featuring a couple having sex on a polluted beach. If this seems like an odd (and frankly unsexy) idea, then bear in mind that every time the video is watched, Pornhub will donate money to Ocean Polymers, a non-profit company that seeks to remove plastic waste from the ocean. Porn companies aren’t generally known for their charitable giving, but if pornography is going to make buckets of money, why not siphon some of that off to good causes? As if to prove that no good deed goes unpunished, two columnists in the Spectator announced that they were entirely opposed to this idea. The authors are not entirely clear about what’s wrong with Pornhub donating part of its profits to charity, other than that they think pornography is bad and shouldn’t exist in the first place. This is a bit of a non-sequitur, but it is one that relies on dubious claims about pornography’s range of negative causal effects. Do the data support the …

Gamers are the Easy—But Wrong—Target After Mass Violence

The recent shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, have resurrected old panic over violence in video games. President Trump, among others, used language linking games to mass shootings and other violence. Such links have long ago been disproven and, fortunately, most people kept their heads and pushed back against these nonsensical claims. But despite this, a more subtle narrative has developed. Is gamer culture itself toxic, catering to misogynists, racists and angry, mostly white, males? As the moral panic over violent content ebbs, I’ve witnessed a wave of comments either disparaging gamers as a group, or insinuating that while certain types of games might not directly cause violent individuals, they do cultivate negative attitudes, such as sexism, militarism or white supremacy. From an empirical standpoint, such claims tend to be long on anecdote and speculation and short on hard data. The latest such argument comes from Brianna Wu in the Washington Post, where she argues that gamer culture is inherently angry, racist and sexist, and “encourages hate.” Video games don’t cause mass shootings, …

Bad Data Analysis and Psychology’s Replication Crisis

In 2014, a study published in JAMA Pediatrics linked playing aggressive video games to real-life aggression in a large sample of Singaporean youth. The study attracted considerable news media attention. For instance, a sympathetic article in Time magazine breathlessly reported its findings and suggested that brain imaging research found aggressive games change kids’ brains. But was the evidence from the Singapore study reliable? In recent years, concerns about the Singapore dataset have grown. UK scholars Andrew Przybylski and Netta Weinstein recently wrote that the way the dataset had been used by the primary authors was problematic. The analyses from the same dataset kept changing across published articles in suspicious ways. These shifting analyses can be a red flag for the data massaging that may produce statistically significant outcomes and hide outcomes that didn’t work out. Such practices may be unintentional or unconscious (scholars are only human after all). But they do suggest that the results could do with further scrutiny. When the dataset became available to my colleague John Wang and me, we re-analyzed the …

Sexualization in Gaming: Advocacy and Over-Correction

Even before its April 2019 release, the eleventh installment of the popular fighting game Mortal Kombat was generating waves for its presentation of female characters. But the grumblings are not what one might expect. After years of being criticized for sexualizing female characters, Mortal Kombat is now under fire from fans—including women—for not allowing the female characters to be sexy enough. Did Mortal Kombat’s developer overshoot the mark? Or are we beginning to see a reassessment of concerns that sexualized games are responsible for sexist attitudes toward women—an argument that increasingly became a mantra of progressive games criticism? Historically, games have catered to male audiences, even as increasing numbers of women and girls have joined the ranks of gamers. Given the rapidly changing gamer demographic, it was perhaps inevitable that games would eventually come in for criticism for under-representing playable female characters, and for presenting them as hyper-sexualized images when they were available. Much of this criticism was deserved, particularly the lack of alternative options featuring strong, less-sexualized playable characters. Indeed, I am on record …

Motivated Reasoning Is Disfiguring Social Science

On February 15, the American Psychological Association (APA) Council of Representatives voted for a resolution opposing parental spanking (full disclosure: I serve on the APA Council of Representatives but speak only for myself). The resolution statement presented spanking research as if data conclusively links spanking to negative outcomes in children such as aggression or reduced intellectual development. I happen to do some research on spanking’s effects on children. Although I am by no means a spanking advocate, I was alarmed by the way an inconsistent, correlational, and methodologically weak research field that routinely produces weak effect sizes was mischaracterized as consistent and strong. Unfortunately, this resolution is part of a larger bias among professional guilds such as the APA, wherein messy science is laundered for public consumption, presenting it as more impressive than it actually is. Many people in the general public believe that organizations such as the APA or American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) are neutral, objective scientific organizations or that they are even part of the government. But they are largely professional guilds wherein members like me pay …