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Entries in science (6)


Best Thing Ever

I didn’t grow up wanting to be a square-jawed individualist or join a heroic quest; I grew up wanting to be Hari Seldon, using my understanding of the mathematics of human behavior to save civilization.
OK, economics is a pretty poor substitute; I don’t expect to be making recorded appearances in the Time Vault a century or two from now. But I tried.

Paul Krugman's introduction to a just issued deluxe new edition of Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy.


Sexism, Science and Journalism

Earlier today I stumbled on a Slate article by Mark Regnerus pondering Why Young Men Have the Upper Hand in Bed, Even When They’re Failing in Life. It raises many interesting questions, the most prominent of which being, Why on Earth is this dumbass writing for Slate?

The core argument of the article seems to be:

  1. Women have little interest in sex except as part of a long-term relationship leading to marriage and children
  2. Many observed sexual relationships aren't long-term nor destined for marriage or children
  3. It follows that men currently have the upper hand on the dating scene. To explain why, we turn to "sexual economics".

My beef is mostly with proposition number 1. First, while I certainly have no knowledge of Mr. Regnerus' sexual prowesses, I can't help but mention that while I'm a computer nerd who never hits the gym, I've been lucky enough to personally establish some anecdotal evidence that his premise is bullshit. But never mind that, let's see how he justifies it:

[O]n average, men want sex more than women do. Call it sexist, call it whatever you want—the evidence shows it's true. In one frequently cited study, attractive young researchers separately approached opposite-sex strangers on Florida State University's campus and proposed casual sex. Three-quarters of the men were game, but not one woman said yes.

So scientists have found that approaching strange women and offering to take them to your place so they can have sex with you is not a very effective strategy. Who knew?

How dim do you have to be to read this result and unequivocally conclude that women want sex less than men do? Really, you can't think of any other reason for this result? Let's think about it for about twelve seconds: I bet more than once you've heard a promiscuous girl being berated as a "slut". You're just as likely to have heard a promiscuous guy admired as a "stud". Can you even imagine the reverse occurring? Do words for "male slut" or "female stud" even exist? What do you think that says about social views on promiscuity? Don't you think that might play a role in how members of both sexes react to offers of casual sex from total strangers? And that's without even considering that the overwhelming majority of sexual predators are male, and that everyone knows this.

Now, as a general tip, whenever you hear or read anyone saying "I know this sounds outrageous, but the science says…", you better check the science. Here's that frequently cited study:

Of course, the sociological interpretation — that women are interested in love while men are interested in sex — is not the only possible interpretation of these data. It may be, of course, that both men and women were equally interested in sex, but that men associated fewer risks with accepting a sexual invitation than did women. Men may be more confident of their ability to fight back a physical assault than are women. Also, the remnants of the double standard may make women afraid to accept the man's invitation.

Another general tip: if you must quote an article in writing, unless you enjoy looking like an idiot, you should probably read it first.

Back to Slate:

I know: Women love sex too. But research like this consistently demonstrates that men have a greater and far less discriminating appetite for it.

This is not entirely wrong, but it's incomplete. It's worth mentioning that mostly-heterosexual women are much more likely to experiment with homosexual sex than mostly-heterosexual men are. (Again, not to question Mr. Regnerus' social life, but this is the kind of knowledge most people eventually pick up just by virtue of being alive.) This would seem to put a serious dent in the whole "women are mostly into sex for the children" theory.

But, more precisely, women are much more likely to report having flirted with same-sex experimentation. We don't know what men and women are actually doing, we can only compare what they admit they're doing. And this applies to just about every study about sex drive and promiscuity.

And yet everybody pretends these biases don't exist. What's the word for "male slut"? "Womanizer" is defined as "A habitual seducer of women." Compare that with "slut: (countable, derogatory) a sexually promiscuous woman or girl." How can one ignore that kind of societal reality when discussing how the different sexes react to offerings of sexual gratification?

This affects a lot more than sexuality. Among my crowd, it's hard to escape the fact that computer science and engineering are male-dominated fields. Even feminists such as myself who deplore this reality are not sure what, if anything, should be done about it. Quotas are far from a perfect solution. Other policies take ages to have any effect. And, yes, it's not impossible that there exists benign reasons why these fields are less attractive to women than men.

But one would be crazy to argue that the current imbalance is the result of a level playing field. I could list many reasons why potentially great female engineers never even consider the career, but Zach Weiner makes this point more elegantly than I can.

I'm not saying that women necessarily have the same sex drive as men. Nor that there cannot in principle be any differences in abilities for different tasks among the sexes — although everything I've seen tells me that the often heard "girls suck at math" is completely false. My point is that as long as these unacknowledged prejudices are entrenched in our society, it is extremely hard to draw any conclusion on what each gender is fundamentally good at, or what it fundamentally wants. (Arguably those "fundamentals" are really meaningless, because all relationships take place inside a social context.) But as long as we overwhelmingly accept these prejudices as "truths", those who fall outside their bounds will be less happy, and contribute less to society than they could.

Also, if you're writing a paper about gender attitudes towards sex, and you ignore this entire societal context, you're a fucking idiot.


Lynne McTaggart

Sitting through 18 minutes of Lynne McTaggart's inane drivel was only a minor annoyance. However, now that an unnamed TEDxBrussels organizer went out of his (or her) way to defend their decision to invite her, I think I'm genuinely pissed. This avowed non-scientist's post (the only one published on TEDxBrussels blog since the event) is wrong in every possible way, completely misunderstands the criticism it purports to answer, and is frankly insulting to those of us who voiced said criticism.

Firstly, if your honest goal is to "join and extend the conversation" in an adult way, you really, really shouldn't open by drawing a parallel between the audience reaction to Mrs. McTaggart's talk and the campaign against WikiLeaks. No-one suggested Lynne McTaggart be silenced. You're welcome to "defiantly reserve the right" to invite her, if mindless posturing happens to be your thing that's entirely fine with me, but no-one's attempting to deny you that right. I and others have said that inviting her was a mistake, but we all agree it's a mistake you're fully entitled to make. Anyway, exposing and denouncing quackery is not an assault on free speech. On the contrary, it is one of the main reasons we need free speech.

By the way, I resent your assumption that I merely "disagree" with Mrs. McTaggart. I'm calling her a fraud. Big difference. I disagree with Republicans who say lower taxes are needed to stimulate the economy. I think they're wrong, but I'll admit that their theory is not a fully disprovable one. On the other hand, Birthers, who maintain the lunacy that Obama wasn't born in the United States, are simply paranoid and delusional, and I won't dignify their position by saying I'm just disagreeing with them.

So what's my beef with Lynne McTaggart? You assert "The charge is that her brand of science is not valid[…]", but no, that's not the charge at all. There are no "brands" in science. There is science, and there is pseudo-science. Spotting the difference between the two is not always easy, especially if, like most people, you only have a vague and second-hand understanding of what science is. It's not just a collection of disciplines, and it certainly has nothing to do with the person practicing it or the institution he belongs to. (After all, the most acclaimed scientist of all time changed our understanding of the universe while working as an obscure patent clerk.)

Science is a set of practices and techniques that enables mere humans to infer objective knowledge about the universe. To me, it is mind-boggling that this is even possible. Our brain evolved to help us evade lions on the plains of East Africa. Whenever it's used to ponder the fabric of the universe it unsurprisingly betrays severe shortcomings. All humans are prone to emotional outbursts, confirmation bias, and a flurry of logical fallacies. The scientific method is the best way we've found yet to avoid these trappings.

Contrary to popular belief, science isn't all that complicated to learn. Humanity's body of scientific knowledge is, of course, huge and always expanding, but the basic method is simple enough. You certainly don't need to go to college to learn it, although that is one popular option. What you definitely need, however, is to want to learn and practice it. You need the willingness to constantly put your beliefs and worldview to the test, and risk seeing the evidence expose them as fraudulent. You need the discipline to, whenever you get a new idea about anything, immediately assume the role of Devil's Advocate, and attack the idea from all possible sides to see if it survives the pummeling. You need, in the words of Richard Feynman, to always be ready to "bend over backwards to show how you’re maybe wrong".

Lynne McTaggart is unwilling to even glance back over her shoulder. She throws around anecdotes about jars of water and peas sitting in laboratories and rambles about how they "noticed an effect". What effect ? How about all the experiments where they didn't notice an effect ? What controls were used to make sure the "effect" couldn't be explained without positing a parapsychological "field" ? By the way, I haven't read Mrs. McTaggart's book, and I don't intend to. (I'm busy.) Nor do I need to to know she's not interested in real knowledge. She proved that at TEDx, by closing her talk with a faith-healing session for a woman with a bacterial infection. This was not an experiment, although that's what she called it. Real experiments are designed to provide evidence that put theories to the test. Whatever happens to that women, it won't be evidence of anything. Bacterial infections have widely diverging effects and remission patterns. They occur all the time and usually go away within a few days. Sometimes they linger and no-one really knows why, and sometimes they go away unexpectedly fast, simply because that's what sometimes happen. (Judging by the throbbing in my throat, I've got a bacterial infection right now. I'm not overly worried.)

I bet Lynne McTaggart performs that same "experiment" every time she gives a talk. Actually, I know she does, she even bragged about it. But she could do it thousands of times and compile testimonies from all her subjects and they could all be ecstatic about how well the chanting worked and it still wouldn't be evidence of anything. The scientific method is simple enough, but the human body is complicated, thus evaluating the efficacy of a treatment is notoriously hard. Lynne's "experiment" doesn't even attempt to control for cognitive bias nor the placebo effect. These effects are so well-known that she can't possibly be unaware of them. Since she obviously decides to ignore them, I conclude she's not really interested in finding anything out. It's just show-biz. And there's nothing wrong with show-biz, until it starts masquerading as scientific inquiry. (By the way, I again find exception in your claim that "[scientists] present at TEDx Brussels, […] all participated in the experiment, all closed their eyes and linked hands with their neighbours. They were relaxed and enjoyed the moment. It was entertaining." — I didn't and it wasn't.)

You end your post saying TED should be about presenting challenging ideas. I fully agree, and this is my one reason why Lynne McTaggart shouldn't have been there. Never mind that her scientific posturing might fool some people and actually hurt public understanding of science. Never mind that her mere presence at TEDx is an insult to the brilliant scientists who also took the stage that day. Never mind that her books and websites are transparent fronts to tempt the sick into buying shiny baubles that at best won't do them any good. Never mind that, as part of the anti-vaccine movement, she can be said to have blood on her hands. The real case against her speaking at TEDx is that her ideas are not new, and certainly not challenging. For decades people have been saying we're all in a mystical field that interconnects all things and our thoughts can act on it and it's all because of quantum. It is entirely unsurprising that someone foolish enough to believe she understood quantum theory, and who didn't know (or didn't care) about confirmation bias and the placebo effect, would promote such theories and try to make money doing so. I like nothing more than being challenged, but you'll have to try harder.


Has America become Too European?

Yesterday I read Richard Feynman's Caltech 1974 commencement address, where he said that scientists had a responsibility to be more than just honest, i.e. to go beyond simply telling the truth, and make a point of mentioning everything that might make their results or argumentation wrong. While better scientific papers often have a "threats to validity" section doing exactly that, Feynman insisted that scientists should exert this strenuous form of integrity not only in academic circles, but also while addressing laypeople.

Thomas Straubhaar's latest op-ed is a perfect example of a piece with not even a hint of Feynman's "scientific integrity." Mr. Straubhaar, professor of economics at the University of Hamburg, presents an argument that goes something like this: "During the 20th century, the US favored small government, individual freedom and market forces. It rose swiftly to superpower status. Today, it has a bigger government that uses more interventionist policies, but its growth is anemic and some fear its greatness is fading. To remain powerful, it needs to shrink government and return to laissez-faire economic policies."

Sounds like a good argument, right? What kind of hesitant, unconfident chump bothers with "threats to validity?" Well, I do:

  • Were the laissez-faire policies of the early 20th century really the main reason for America's success? Weren't, say, low population density and immense reserves of oil and other natural resources at least as important?

  • How laissez-faire were those policies really? Isn't FDR's 1933 New Deal, widely credited with helping the economy recover from the great depression, just as interventionist as what Obama's doing now?

  • Even assuming America's greatness is really due to the free market policies of the industrial revolution, is it so obvious that they still represent the best option now, a hundred years later, with the world increasingly multipolar and domestic oil pretty much gone?

I'll stop at three things, but the attentive reader will easily find more.


Cargo Cult Science

Richard Feynman talks about pseudo-science, honesty, scientific integrity, and how Millikan set a bad precedent for measuring the charge of an electron.

I’m talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you’re maybe wrong, that you ought to do when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists, and I think to laymen.

You should read it.