The Sexist Science

Recently, I was reading an article over at VICE that contained many good points amidst the tangled web of editorial notes and reviews of a book entitled Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong by Angela Saini.

I found myself in agreement with many of the points being made, including:

  • It’s a bit ridiculous that 3 male scientists concluded that menopause makes sense from an evolutionary perspective because older women are not attractive to older men.  The amount of sex that happens in nursing homes suggests that this is simply not true.
  • Science has been used throughout its history to reinforce gender stereotypes and keep women in subservient roles, and women have been excluded from it too often, and also frequently haven’t been given credit for their discoveries or innovations.
  • Science is popularly seen as far more impartial and certain in its proclamations than it actually is.
  • There are a lot of conclusions unsupported by evidence that are conveniently drawn by folks who want to perpetuate narratives about female inferiority, albeit only loosely based on the findings of evolutionary psychology.
  • The strength of women in various areas (physically, mentally, emotionally) has been undervalued by biological scientists on many occasions.

Unfortunately, Saini does some leaping to conclusions unsupported by the evidence as well.  Her speculation that men might be physically stronger on average not because of role differentiation and sexual selection in primates (the most likely cause), but rather because women spend more of their energy on menstruation and childbirth, doesn’t make much sense.

Our musculature’s upper limits are determined by our genes, not our energy costs.  If every man and every woman were to achieve their maximum muscular strength, there would still be an average difference in strength between the sexes.  See the Olympic Games’ results in various sports for evidence of this.

Now, higher energy costs will definitely reduce the ability to build muscle, but men and women do not on average have the same potential to build muscle because of the typical genetic differences.  Men and women are equal, but we are not interchangeable, not even in the aggregate.

Given that many people who have espoused the idea that women are inferior to men based on reactionary cultural values or religious views have used it to support their imperatives to keep women subordinate to men, and that MRAs (Men’s Rights Activists) have used it to support their views about women’s excessive power in our culture that operates to the detriment of men, it’s completely understandable that any feminist would look askance at evolutionary psychology.

For a fair number of contemporary feminists who are vaguely familiar with evolutionary psychology, it’s true that they often recognize that the scientific endeavor has historically been and is now tainted by sexism, but it’s also true that evolutionary psychology is the scientific discipline that is not infrequently seen by feminists as THE sexist science par excellence.

This is unfortunate, in my opinion.  I think that evolutionary psychology can be very useful and often is very useful in understanding important things about ourselves as homo sapiens.  It would be a shame to miss out on really valuable knowledge because of the uses to which evolutionary psychology is put by reactionaries or MRAs.

Sadly, I suspect that there will always be some feminists who reject evolutionary psychology wholesale.  Some may do so because there are so many historical and contemporary examples of its misuse.  Others may do so for the less appealing reason that evidence from evolutionary biology and psychology contradicts their dogmas about the interchangeability of men and women and the causes of differences between the sexes.

For the latter group, evolutionary psychology, no matter how it changes and even if sexism is eliminated in the discipline, will always be seen as the sexist science.

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The Good News About Lying in Politics

…is that if we identify what’s causing much of it, we can find solutions.  This, of course, prompts us to ask a perfectly sensible question:

Is there well-designed and effective research that identifies what’s causing most of the lying in politics and lying about the evidence that underlies our political decision-making?

It turns out that there is (see this article in Psychology Today), and it tells us something very useful about how to combat lying in politics and lying about the evidence that informs our politics.

The research demonstrates that when we have a strong incentive to find the truth, we are much more likely to be able to put aside or at least reduce the impact of our tribal loyalties.

In the particular study referenced by Psychology Today’s article, that incentive was monetary.  We have good reason to think that providing people with a significant monetary incentive to be correct allows them to be committed to finding the truth as a higher priority than signaling loyalty to one’s political tribe.

For a variety of reasons, this will probably not work as a society-wide strategy for eliminating or massively reducing lying in politics.  The amount of money that would be significant enough compensation to incentivize folks to pursue the truth over tribal loyalty varies dramatically between and among persons.

Those who have plenty of money already will usually need a larger amount relative to their wealth to function as a strong incentive.  Those who have very little money will need to be provided enough money to rise above day-to-day survival concerns, a process that can take quite a long time and will also be very expensive.

Those who already have enough money to rise above day-to-day survival concerns, but aren’t so extremely wealthy that they can easily afford to turn down a monetary incentive for valuing truth over tribal loyalty, are probably going to be the most susceptible to this kind of incentive.

I’m not sure we have enough money to use it as an effective society-wide incentive under those circumstances, and that’s setting aside the very complicated questions of who gets to decide what’s true and how we manage the process of paying folks to learn it.  So what other kind of incentives might work?

Material incentives in general are subject to the same kinds of problems as using a monetary incentive, and in many cases those problems would be even more striking, particularly for rare materials and goods, or materials and goods which have very limited uses.

The wide variety of incentives that work well for a wide variety of people suggests to me that each person needs to find an incentive that works well for them, something that can provide them with such a powerful motivation to seek the truth without regard to tribal loyalty that they can make significant progress in mitigating the effects of their cognitive biases.

It also suggests to me that we need to have cultural values and norms that support a pursuit of truth over tribal loyalty.  Given how our brains work, there’s no way to eliminate completely from our decision-making the influence of tribal loyalties.  Which might not even be desirable.

And yet a powerful cultural tradition of the pursuit of Veritas and personal commitments to that pursuit can help us reduce the Animus in public life and allow us to work together more often for the good of all.

So if we want to massively reduce the lying in politics and the lying about the evidence we use to inform our politics, the best thing we can do is start today by either finding or renewing our extraordinary motivation to seek the truth even and especially when it costs us dearly-held beliefs.

The second thing we can and should do right after that is to pass our love of truth onto our children and help them find an extraordinary motivation to pursue truth above tribal loyalty as well.

In this way, we might one day find that it’s true that there is good news about lying in politics, and that the good news is that a lot of that lying has stopped.

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The Conceptual Hoax: A Blind Review

At the end of my previous post about the recent hoax paper entitled “The Conceptual Penis” I briefly alluded to the fact that this paper’s acceptance through the peer review process should concern all of us, even those of us who don’t think that the paper’s authors actually demonstrated via their hoax that gender studies in particular and post-modern social sciences in general are, well, intellectually bankrupt.

But why should it concern us that a couple of reviewers accepted the paper, and even praised it?  Couldn’t they have just been rubber-stamping the review because they don’t have time to do a proper review?  Don’t universities tend to overburden their new academics with heavy teaching loads and publishing expectations and committee seats and community service hours and onerous regulations?

Yes, universities definitely overburden new academics.  This is a serious problem that needs to be dealt with so that academics can do the work of discovering, creating, and building civilization rather than spending most of their time kowtowing to the administrators.

At the same time, it takes almost no effort whatsoever to determine that the article written by the hoaxing authors is utter nonsense.  Particularly if the reviewers had a basic familiarity with feminism, post-structuralism, and feminist post-structural discourse analysis, it should have been very easy to tell that this paper was employing the discipline’s buzzwords without actually presenting an understanding of the topic.

After all, this is a common way of getting through an essay for students.  They use the right key words that appear in the literature and are discussed in class, but it’s fairly apparent from their writing that they lack a deep understanding of the topic with which they’re engaging.  Any academic should be able to spot this kind of thing quickly.

In general, experts in a field can quickly spot people who are just faking it poorly.  And the paper submitted by the hoaxers were intentionally faking it poorly.  They admitted to having done no research to understand the concepts involved.  And they intentionally added phrases that would be immediate red flags for anyone familiar with feminist literature.

So how on earth did this paper pass a blind peer-review process with praise from the reviewers?  Were the reviewers not actually experts in the relevant field?  Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the reviewers were not experts in the relevant field.  In that case, they must have failed to do basic research into the field’s terminology before accepting the paper and/or praising it.

Or, if they were in fact experts in the relevant field, the hoaxers are probably right that the paper wasn’t accepted on its perceived merits, but rather because it signaled agreement with the moral orthodoxy of contemporary post-structuralist feminism on topics like masculinity, capitalism, and climate change.

It’s hard to imagine that the reviews were anything other than horrifyingly inept for one reason or another, and it’s difficult to figure out whose peers they were.  I hope, along with the hoaxers, that it’s not true that the reviewers actually thought the paper’s arguments effective, regardless of whether they thought the conclusions were true.

The worst case scenario is that the reviewers maliciously accepted the paper knowing that the authors were faking their way through it really poorly.  A bad scenario is that the reviewers weren’t experts and didn’t bother doing cursory research.  A truly horrifying scenario is that an intentionally bad paper seemed genuinely like sound academic exposition to truly expert reviewers, meaning that an intentionally nonsensical paper was indistinguishable from well-intentioned academic work in the field of gender studies.

I refuse to assume that the reviewers were just plain stupid, because that would just be uncharitable in addition to being even less likely than the other possibilities.  Regardless, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this was a blind review in the sense that the folks who did the reviewing couldn’t see through an obvious fake.

The Conceptual Hoax Series

A Limp Trick – A Blind Review – A Failed Analysis

Posted in Current Events, Education, Philosophy, Politics, Religion | 1 Comment

The Conceptual Hoax: A Limp Trick

The recent hoax written about in Skeptic magazine has resulted in, no doubt, many terrible puns in response to the satirical article’s title, “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct.”

Understandably, the authors of the article think that their hoax was a rousing success on two fronts, described in their own words below:

  1. The Pay-to-Publish, Open-Access Journal Problem
  2. Postmodernism, Gender Studies, and the Canon of Knowledge

The authors predicted that some people would conveniently focus on only 1 or 2 depending on their a priori intellectual commitments, and this seems to be happening.

That said, the authors seem to have overestimated the size and potency of their hoax.  They believe that this hoax has broad implications for the academic viability of what they describe as “postmodernist social “sciences” in general, and gender studies departments in particular,” at least in their current form.  They recommend a thorough “housecleaning” without providing concrete steps for accomplishing it.

The implication, though, is that these academics need to adhere to some set of academic standards in a rigorous way.  On that point, I tend to agree with the authors.  I’m just not sure how these disciplines could accomplish that, given their assumptions about how to do academic work.

Much of the efforts of these disciplines being critiqued by the authors are bound up in trying to explode existing conventions, overturn traditional understandings of important topics, and tearing down any distinctions that might be meaningful enough to, well, make a difference.

Any attempt in these areas of academia to have a functional distinction between proper academic work and other kinds of work will be quickly deconstructed by their fellow academics.  After all, isn’t the identity of an academic fluid?  Don’t academic standards change because they are social constructs subject to the vagaries of the usual oppressive suspects?

This would be followed by additional attempts to explode the conventions for proper academic work based on the fact that they are designed to perpetuate the power of white middle-class feminists at the expense of academics who fall into other identity categories.

Even if one department managed to establish a cultural tradition of adhering to a specific set of academic standards, isn’t it likely that the instinct to overturn traditional understandings of important topics would drive many of the members of the department to get rid of the academic standards?

While I think it’s entirely possible for a professor who specializes in Gender Studies to adhere to rigorous academic standards, and I’m sure that many do, I’m not sure how those can be maintained with any consistency across the field.

Precisely because the intellectual commitments of the discipline cut against the establishment and maintenance of differences of treatment driven by policies that can always be critiqued as problematic by using the analytical approaches used every day by people in that discipline, I think attempts at “housecleaning” by way of implementing new (or old) academic standards are doomed to fail.

I don’t really see how this hoax could have any constructive impact.  Yes, it showed that complete nonsense can make it into an academic journal.  But who didn’t already know that?  And isn’t that a problem for multiple disciplines, as has already been pointed out?

We would need a far larger number of examples of hoax articles getting published, and in a wide variety of academic journals in Gender Studies, to conclude that Gender Studies departments in general were in need of basic academic reform, let alone that post-modernist social sciences in general were the problem.

This hoax simply doesn’t rise to the level of evidence we would need to draw those sorts of conclusions.  Of course, the conclusions may be correct, and there might be good evidence out there for those conclusions.

Nonetheless, the “Conceptual Penis” hoax article getting past 2 peer reviewers, as troubling as that should be, is probably just a limp trick.

The Conceptual Hoax Series

A Limp Trick – A Blind Review – A Failed Analysis

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Does positive reinforcement work long-term?

In a very well-written article for Moultrie News, Jody Stallings addresses the topic of positive reinforcement as an educational tool.  His first point is that while positive reinforcement does seem to have benefits, it has stark limits.

His central claims about what those limits are seem to be as follows:

  1. Positive reinforcement doesn’t work so well once children are older.
  2. Positive reinforcement requires us to constantly adapt to children’s changing desires.
  3. Positive reinforcement stops working when extrinsic rewards are taken away.

Given what I learned in my developmental psychology courses, I think there’s good evidence that claim #1 is largely correct.  While positively reinforcing behavior you want people to keep doing will probably always work with some people, most of us have a moral sense that develops and changes as we get older, and we become more resistant to changing our behaviors without some very compelling reason that’s greater than an extrinsic reward.

I actually think that kind of moral development in which our motivations for behavior shift farther away from extrinsic rewards and become rooted in intrinsic rewards like a desire to be virtuous is a very good developmental path, and to that extent I am always happy to see that people no longer rely on extrinsic rewards as positive reinforcement.

That said, I don’t think Stallings is correct to associate positive reinforcement solely with extrinsic rewards.  When we gain the intrinsic rewards associated with becoming people of good moral character through practicing the virtues, that too is positive reinforcement.  It’s just that the positive reinforcement relies upon our own motivations and principles rather than being founded on rewards we are given from others.

Claim #2, that using the positive reinforcement technique requires us to adapt to children’s changing desires, is also true.  In fact, it seems trivially true.  Of course teachers will need to adapt to the changing desires that accompany growth into adulthood.  That has always been the case, whether some teachers acknowledged it or not.

Children will of course seek different kinds of approval from teachers based on their developmental path and their cultural and family environments.  This only becomes a problem if positive reinforcement is being used as a panacea.  If a teacher is trying to fix all a child’s behaviors with positive reinforcement, it takes a lot of time and resources and may well not be practical.

On the other hand, if positive reinforcement is used in conjunction with punishments for egregious behavior that harms others by teachers who have cultivated a relationship of honesty and trust with their students and can do both punishment and reward credibly, this does not become unhealthy.

Claim #3, that positive reinforcement stops working when extrinsic rewards are taken away, is at least partially true.  Stallings provided an anecdote as an illustration of this claim, so I’ll provide an anecdote to illustrate its limits.

When I was a young child, my parents paid me a penny for every page of a book I had read.  This is precisely the kind of positive reinforcement that Stallings believes doesn’t work after the extrinsic reward is taken away.

And yet, here I sit, not being paid to read any of the hundreds of books, thousands of educational magazine articles, or thousands of practical and personal blog posts I’ve read as an adult.  It seems that the positive reinforcement never stopped working.  What happened is simply that I found my own intrinsic motivations to continue the behavior and no compelling reason to stop it.

Stallings’ suggestion that we cultivate an ethos of living virtuously because it is a good unto itself is of course one way to inculcate this kind of development of intrinsic motivations, and it’s the one I happen to favor myself.

I think Stallings reasoned correctly from his premises in the article, but like many a philosopher examining claims, I’m worried that he got one of the definitions wrong and that it may have caused him to critique the target of his piece more harshly than was warranted.

I think the problem is less that we use positive reinforcement frequently, and more that some folks see it as a panacea or fail to help children find intrinsic motivations for good behaviors that lead to a healthy life.

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The Wisdom of Logan


Logan is probably not a film that will be remembered forever by historians as a profound exposition of the human condition with deep philosophical and anthropological implications.

But that’s a good description of it.  What I just wrote is not a spoiler, but much of what follows is in fact, a spoiler for those who have not seen the Wolverine films or read a detailed synopsis of the plot.  So if you’re concerned about spoilers, avert your eyes already.

In the film X-Men Origins: Wolverine, it’s revealed that Logan (birth name James Howlett) chose to accept the Weapon X project’s offer to make him indestructible, which they accomplished by bonding adamantium to his skeleton.  He accepted this offer in order to get revenge on the man who killed his lover.

One of the things we learn in Logan, which is loosely based on the Old Man Logan comic series, is that Logan suspects that he knows why his healing factor is starting to fail him.  His theory (a very plausible one) is that the metal bonded to his skeleton is poisoning him from the inside.  Perhaps his famous healing factor is overwhelmed by the task of constantly healing from the huge amount of internal toxins.

This touches on a deeper truth of the human experience, that when we take actions with permanent consequences in the pursuit of vengeance, it generally poisons our lives.  Whether we kill someone, or merely ruin their reputation, or simply hold on to our grudge against another person for a lifetime, we inevitably drink a poison for our hearts, and one that leaves us with a bitter taste for as long we have committed to drinking it.

Whatever the explanation, emotional or medical, Logan is increasingly susceptible to dying.  And, just as in The Wolverine, Logan seems to want to die.  He’s had enough.  His heart is worn out after a couple hundred years of violence and emotional trauma.  And who can blame him for his world-weariness?

I was world-weary and wanting to die after only 20 years, so I certainly can’t cast any stones at Logan for the same desire after over 200 years.

Another spot of wisdom in the film is the protagonist Laura (X-23), who is genetically the daughter of Logan.  Like all daughters, she needs and wants more from him than biological paternity, more even than mere protection from physical dangers, though he provides that reluctantly.

His reluctance to do this stems from his long experience with death, specifically, that those who are close to him often die violently.  This long experience with death has given him a kind of wisdom, the wisdom to know that to grow close to people is to suffer a broken heart, in one way or another.

This is part of what makes Logan reluctant to stay very long with the family of farmers who offered them dinner in return for helping them recover their horses.  He knows that every moment that they spend with the family, the more likely it is that the violence following him and Laura will catch up to these kind-hearted folks and kill them.

Charles Xavier’s wisdom is of a different kind.  He encourages Logan to relish the moment of serenity with newfound friends, the simple beauty of the communal meal and the pastoral environs.  He knows that life is made worth living by experiencing these beautiful moments as fully as possible, by allowing ourselves to connect with others profoundly through those moments.

Both, of course, are right.  Logan’s worries are well-founded, as we learn when the Transigen Project‘s strike force shows up in the night when all should be calm.  This strike force is headed up by a clone of Logan, a younger man with the healing powers of Logan’s youth and his adamantium claws as well.  The clone kills Charles Xavier in his bed, captures Laura, and then begins killing the family.

In the films, Logan has often seemed to be haunted by the constant deaths of those he loves and the many people who just happened to be nearby him.  He is a constant danger to everyone around him, and he knows it to his pain.

Any man who is a living weapon, as many of us are, knows something of this pain.  My own greatest fear in life is that I become a constant danger to those around me, that my strength and my cunning would somehow be lost from my control and put in the service of chaotic evil, that I would become the instrument of destruction for all those I love.

This is a terrible fear for me, but it is a reality for the Logan of this film.  The Transigen project’s emissaries have successfully manipulated Logan into leading them to those he fears will die because of him, to those he wishes to care for, to those he sometimes succeeds in caring for.

What’s worse, they have made his clone their executioner, using his DNA to bring into being his younger self, and point this living weapon at everyone he holds dear.  My greatest fear is here combined with fears common to many men, the fear of being bested by men who are like us, but younger and stronger, and the fear of the weakening that comes with age.

Though I’m only 32 years old, I already feel it.  My knees ache, my shoulder won’t stay in the proper alignment, and I don’t heal quite so quickly anymore.  My workout schedule and active life, along with my healthy diet, cannot stop the march of aging as it advances on my body.

Nor, it seems, can Logan’s healing factor stop the march of aging completely.  He aches.  His scars no longer heal quickly.  He is much more easily winded, and much more easily wounded.  This has become apparent throughout the film, and reaches a climax near the end when he is trying to keep Transigen’s strike force from killing or capturing all the young mutants seeking refuge via crossing into Canada.

Even with advanced chemical assistance and incredible persistence, he is not up to the task of facing the strike force and defeating his clone.  Nonetheless, the advanced chemical assistance does allow him to experience something close to the powers of his youth for a short time, the powers of reckless rage that we who have high testosterone levels and an adrenaline rush know from experience.

As always, reckless rage and the powers of youth are not enough to conquer all challenges, and Logan is left reeling, relying on his cunning to help him stave off his clone as long as possible, hoping that he can save his daughter’s life this day.  His daughter takes the life of his clone, but not before the clone has mortally wounded Logan.

Laura will be as Logan was: fatherless.  Had Logan been willing to step outside of his tough guy loner mode of operating and developed a relationship with Laura, as well as worked with the other mutants, not to mention being willing to hope in Eden, things may well have turned out better.

But he died for her without ever having loved her as a daughter, without having given her the gift of knowing a father’s love through many years of trials.  Like all fathers, he gave the gift of life, and like many fathers, he spent his life so that hers could continue.  And yet there was so much more he could have given, but instead he withheld it.

And is this not a poignant allegory?  How many men have made the mistake of operating like tough loners, thinking that it made them strong, when it fact they would have been much stronger had they opened their hearts to love, to trust, and to hope?

How many men have missed out on many deeply fulfilling life experiences in the quest to have a lesser strength rooted in reckless rage?  How many men have given the lesser gift of laying down their lives without fully loving rather than the greater gift of laying down their lives by fully loving?

I have.  Many men still do.  Our wisdom is not enough to free us completely of the chains of our reliance on our own strength, our insistence that we must bear the burden alone, that we must pick up the heavy, killing yoke rather than the easy and light burden of those who practice love and compassion.

Like all of us, Logan’s wisdom was not enough to keep him alive and thriving despite the struggles he faced.  And yet the wisdom he received from Charles Xavier, his ailing father-figure, was enough to allow him to die well, to finally reach out in love and receive joy and peace from doing so in his last moments.

Perhaps the final bit of wisdom in Logan is that, like all literary figures which are fully-formed and interesting, he is a mirror in which many of us can see our own flaws, our own struggles, our own virtues, and our own potential greatness.

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Simon, Mike, and I discuss our beers, the sudden prevalence of claims about the Deep State, why the opponents of Milo Yiannopolous keep failing, and the theological implications of AI.

Episode 3.3: Do you want Cylons?

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