All posts filed under: Psychology

Retracting a Controversial Paper Won’t Help Female Scientists

Imagine yourself as a newly hired female assistant professor and the delight you feel when you learn that your article, examining over 222 million academic papers, has just been accepted at one of the top science journals. Now imagine your response when you discover that a fellow female academic is formally demanding your paper’s retraction,1 galvanized by a mob of outraged scientists on Twitter. This was the recent experience of Bedoor AlShebli, who published her large-scale research in Nature Communications.2 Open letter to the Editor-in-Chief of @NatureComms about the AlShebli paper, which claims that training with #WomenInSTEM damages the careers of young scientists pic.twitter.com/NvuBK3Z5T6 — Leslie Vosshall PhD (@pollyp1) November 19, 2020 In an analysis of over three million junior and senior co-author teams, AlShebli and her colleagues found that junior scholars with more female senior co-authors received fewer citations (up to 35 percent fewer) on their academic publications. Moreover, senior female academics who published with female junior scholars received 18 percent fewer citations than those who published with male junior scholars. No such citation …

R.M. Vaughan (1965–2020): A Beautiful Mind Silently Extinguished in a Time of Fear

We were extremely close for about five years. He was my confidante and my support system. We were best friends. Never lovers—though many thought we were. It was a dark time for me, and I needed him. Canadian gay writer Richard Murray Vaughan (1965–2020) was found dead by police in Fredericton, New Brunswick on October 23rd—10 days after being reported missing. No foul play is suspected. This is in part a remembrance of R.M. (as he was widely known, including to his friends), but also a reminder that the campaign against COVID-19 can create its own kind of harm. I don’t pretend that this essay is one Richard would have authored (though he did write about COVID-19 and mental health shortly before his death). He and I were different men and different writers. But I do think my old friend would have agreed with at least some of what I have to say. I met Richard when he entered my office at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre—142 George Street, Toronto—in 1991. Initially we talked about …

The Real Causes of Human Sex Differences

Scholarly debate over the magnitude and origin of human sex differences is seemingly interminable. As one might imagine, the arguments are often quite acrimonious, and the associated positions differ sharply in terms of the relative focus on social or biological contributions to sex differences. The prevailing view in the social and behavioral sciences is that human sex differences are typically small in magnitude, largely social in origin, and driven by gender roles (below).[1], [2]  The proponents of this view will give ground to biology for traits that are all but impossible to refute, such as the sex difference in height, but quickly dismiss these as being of trivial importance in the modern world. The gender roles explanation of sex differences enjoys wide popularity inside and outside of academia, a level of acceptance that qualifies—given abundant contradictory evidence—as one of Mackay’s extraordinary popular delusions.[3] Here, I describe how gender roles are thought to shape human sex differences and why these theories fall short. I illustrate the latter using the social development and play patterns of boys …

The Bias that Divides Us

As we sit here over six months after the initial lockdown provoked by COVID-19, the United States has moved out of a brief period of national unity into distressingly predictable and bitter partisan division. The return to this state of affairs has been fuelled by a cognitive trait that divides us and that our culture serves to magnify. Certainly many commentators have ascribed some part of the divide to what they term our “post-truth” society, but this is not an apt description of the particular defect that has played a central role in our divided society. The cause of our division is not that people deny the existence of truth. It is that people are selective in displaying their post-truth tendencies. What our society is really suffering from is myside bias: People evaluate evidence, generate evidence, and test hypotheses in a manner biased toward their own prior beliefs, opinions, and attitudes. That we are facing a myside bias problem and not a calamitous societal abandonment of the concept of truth is perhaps good news in …

George Orwell and the Struggle against Inevitable Bias

In the bleak post-war Britain of October 1945, an essay by George Orwell appeared in the first edition of Polemic. Edited by abstract artist and ex-Communist Hugh Slater, the new journal was marketed as a “magazine of philosophy, psychology, and aesthetics.” Orwell was not yet famous—Animal Farm had only just started appearing on shelves—but he had a high enough profile for his name to be a boon to a new publication. His contribution to the October 1945 Polemic was “Notes on Nationalism,” one of his best and most important pieces of writing. Amidst the de-Nazification of Germany, the alarmingly rapid slide into the Cold War, and the trials of German and Japanese war criminals, Orwell set out to answer a question which had occupied his mind for most of the past seven years—why do otherwise rational people embrace irrational or even contradictory beliefs about politics? As a junior colonial official in Burma, the young Eric Blair (he had not yet adopted the name by which he would be known to posterity) had been disgusted by …

Beware Your Innate Pessimist

With the COVID-19 lockdown upon us, anxiety and depression are on the rise. It would be irresponsible to downplay the risks that the novel coronavirus poses to America’s health and economy. But excessive pessimism is also in no one’s interest. Problems and their purported solutions must be evaluated dispassionately. Evidence, reason, and science rather than intuition or emotion must guide us during this difficult moment. Unfortunately, some of our most basic impulses evolved at a time when the world was very different from the one we now inhabit. “Our modern skulls house a stone age mind,” note Leda Cosmides and John Tooby from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Consequently, that mind can mislead us as we address today’s problems, including those of anxiety and depression, in ways that can have unintended and harmful consequences. What sort of “habits of the mind” have we developed over the hundreds of millennia we spent living in a world that was more inhospitable than our own? First, we have evolved to prioritize bad news. “Organisms that treat threats …

An Orwelexicon for Bias and Dysfunction in Psychology and Academia

In this essay, I introduce a slew of neologisms—new words—to capture the tone and substance of much discourse, rhetoric, dysfunction, and bias in academia and psychology. It’s partly inspired by an article entitled ‘Lexicon for Gender Bias in Academia and Medicine’ by Drs Choo and May in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), although that one was coming at this from a different perspective. They argued that “mansplaining” was just the “tip of the iceberg” and so coined terms such as “Himpediment,” defined as a “man who stands in the way of progress of women.”  Adminomania: A delusion that increased administrative and bureaucratic intrusions into people’s lives will actually improve something, fueled primarily by a pervasive blindness to unintended negative side effects. See Title IX. Athletic gynocide: The elimination from sports competitions of people identified at birth by doctors or other adults as female because they cannot successfully compete with people identified at birth by doctors or other adults as males but who identify as females. Bias bias: A bias for seeing biases, often manifesting as either claiming bias …

Can We Boost Empathy Through Perspective-Taking?

Are humans hardwired for compassion? Glancing over my bookshelves, titles such as Born to Be Good, The Compassionate Instinct, and The Altruistic Brain remind me that many of my scientific colleagues answer this question with an enthusiastic “yes.” Each of these books, in its own way, teaches that the animal designated Homo sapiens has evolved to care for strangers. It’s just part of who we are. If it doesn’t come effortlessly, all it takes is some patience and some practice. Attend a workshop. Volunteer at a homeless shelter. Read some fiction. Meditate. Read a book about compassion. Compassion is inside of you. You just need to nurture it. One of the ways we have been taught to nurture empathy is by deliberately trying to take the perspective of a suffering person. “Before you judge people, walk a mile in their shoes,” we exhort our compassion-challenged friends and family. And we parents regularly encourage our kids to imagine the feelings of the people who might be hurt by their self-centered behavior, hoping that our admonitions are …

Build Your Own Intellectual Oasis

Two years ago I started an experiment I would like to recommend to you. At the urging of my best friend, concerned not just about my happiness but my mental health, I went dark. Perhaps if enough people give this a try it could help pull our troubled culture out of its downward spiral. What do I mean by going dark? I’ve enjoyed a four-decade long career as an engineer, entrepreneur, and venture capital investor working with many others to help build the digital world in which we now live. As the years passed I became more of an “activist,” devoting increasing amounts of time, money, and attention to various issues and causes impacting the body politic. For 25 years I wrote regular opinion columns for publications like Network Computing and Communications Week, back in the pre-web days, transitioning to Forbes.com, the Huffington Post, RealClear Markets, the Daily Caller, and the Foundation for Economic Education in the digital age. As my tech career began winding down I spent half a dozen years as a fellow …

The Ranks of Gender Detransitioners Are Growing. We Need to Understand Why

A recent NBC News report warned that media coverage of detransitioners—formerly transgender individuals seeking to return to the gender associated with their biological sex—is misleading and potentially harmful. “No one disputes that transition regret does exist,” author Liam Knox writes. “However, trans advocates say some of the recent coverage around the topic portrays detransitioning as much more common than it actually is.” The article suggests that journalists are creating a “panic” about detransition, and fuelling the “misconception” that trans individuals are “just temporarily confused or suffering from a misdiagnosed psychological disorder.” Knox quotes Dr. Jack Turban, a psychiatric resident at Massachusetts General Hospital who researches the mental health of trans youth, to the effect that “affirming” a child’s gender transition in general (and providing puberty-blocking drugs, in particular) is usually the most prudent course of action—though the article does not offer evidence to support this assertion, nor specify how the associated risks and benefits might be compared. Readers of such articles might not realize that data regarding the medical transition of children and adolescents is …