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Nature’s sexism

The magazine, that is, not the natural world. They’ve published a good editorial today in which they acknowledge inequalities in their editorial staff (14% of their editors are women, 6% of the researcher profiles they did in 2012 were about women).

Unfortunately, they do make a few excuses.

One can speculate that there also may be a tendency for women to be less willing than men to push themselves forward, which may lead to editors being less aware of them. But it is certainly the case that women typically spend more time than men as homemakers and looking after children, further reducing the time available for journal contributions

One could say there is also a tendency for men to shout down women, and to assume that they’ll be the ones taking care of the babies. These are all self-perpetuating stereotypes, you know, and the first step in breaking them involves consciously rejecting them.

But the editorial goes beyond that to recommend steps to break unconscious biases.

However, we do not believe that these considerations can fully account for, or excuse, the imbalance in Nature’s pages. Nor do we believe that our own editors consciously discriminate against women.

That leaves the unconscious factors, and here we believe that there is work to do. We believe that in commissioning articles or in thinking about who is doing interesting or relevant work, for all of the social factors already mentioned, and possibly for psychological reasons too, men most readily come to editorial minds. The September paper speculated about an unconscious assumption that women are less competent than men. A moment’s reflection about past and present female colleagues should lead most researchers to correct any such assumption.

We therefore believe that there is a need for every editor to work through a conscious loop before proceeding with commissioning: to ask themselves, “Who are the five women I could ask?”

Under no circumstances will this ‘gender loop’ involve a requirement to fulfill a quota or to select anyone whom we do not know to be fully appropriate for the job, although we will set ourselves internal targets to help us to focus on the task. It is not yet clear just what difference this workflow loop will make. But it seems to us to be a step towards appropriately reflecting in our pages the contributions of women to science.

This is the same step many of us asked meeting organizers to take in the atheist community, to simply start being aware of the gender balance in their speaker rosters and to think about bringing good and interesting women to the fore…which was no problem for anyone and has resulted in great progress. Honestly, I believe that most people want to be fair and can respect people of all sexes, but it takes work to overcome deeply ingrained cultural assumptions.

Comments

  1. says

    I have to wonder if Henry Gee’s on board with this…

    ***

    One can speculate that there also may be a tendency for women to be less willing than men to push themselves forward, which may lead to editors being less aware of them. But it is certainly the case that women typically spend more time than men as homemakers and looking after children, further reducing the time available for journal contributions

    Sigh.

  2. David Beach says

    Submissions should be reviewed ‘blind’. Hide the authors’ details and remove the problem altogether.

  3. says

    Autism rates “favor” males 4 to 1. Asperger’s “favors” males up to 9 to 1, depending on severity. There is no racial divide in these syndromes, but there is a sexual divide. There is a sexual bias in certain scientific fields, don’t get me wrong, but perhaps there is also a limited amount of females by natural selection as well?
    .

    I suppose the journals should represent the sexual ratio of the planet, but if we magically removed the biases in all fields, some fields would still be dominated by males. In Italy, women physicists number up to 25% in the field; not because that’s a pre-determined allowance, but a natural limit.
    .

    Just an observation.

  4. chigau (無) says

    thomaslawson
    In Italy, women physicists number up to 25% in the field; not because that’s a pre-determined allowance, but a natural limit.
    thomaslawson’ s knowledge of biology makes me think he’s a physicist.
    (I forgot how to do Mr.Gumby)

  5. Beatrice says

    There is a sexual bias in certain scientific fields, don’t get me wrong, but perhaps there is also a limited amount of females by natural selection as well?

    This should have Mr. Gumby

  6. Amphiox says

    thomaslawson;

    Since we’re talking science here let’s consider applying some proper experimental technique here:

    Given an observed discrepancy between two very similar (you know, sharing 99.999999999% or so genetically) biological groups, which is the more likely a priori null hypothesis, that the observed difference is environmental, or innate?

    Suppose nevertheless that you wish to test the innate hypothesis against the null. How do you go about doing this? You design an experiment that eliminates all sources of environmental bias.

    So get back to us when all gender biases in society have been eliminated and confirmed empirically to be eliminated.

    *you also need a plausible hypothetical mechanism that explains the conjectured innate difference. What mechanism do you propose?

  7. Enkidum says

    thomaslawson:

    Look, I’m far more on your side than most of the commenters here, in that I think there very likely are reasonably powerful behavioural tendencies that are sex-driven (not gender-driven, and not due to societal biases). But you’re just being silly when you say that the 3:1 ratio of Italian male:female physicists is a natural limit. What possible evidence do you have for this?

    And you’re misusing “natural selection”, but we can probably let that slide for the time being.

  8. Woo_Monster, Sniffer of Starfarts says

    In Italy, women physicists number up to 25% in the field; not because that’s a pre-determined allowance, but a natural limit.
    .

    *Snort*
    What the fuck is a natural limit anyways? How does it work? What is your evidence?
    ***

    Look, I’m far more on your side than most of the commenters here, in that I think there very likely are reasonably powerful behavioural tendencies that are sex-driven (not gender-driven, and not due to societal biases).

    What a tease. Elaborate! What are these behavioral tendencies, and and in what way are they “sex-driven”? Links please.

  9. Enkidum says

    Woo-monster:

    I don’t know what they are. No one does, and I’m not sure anyone can at the moment, due to the problems Amphiox outlines. In order to find out, you’d have to control other sources of bias, which isn’t possible (in humans) without ethical violations on the order of Naziism. And maybe not even possible then.

    But pretty much every other species has sex-linked behavioural differences. These differ widely between species (consider, say, hyenas vs lions), and even between quite closely related species (e.g. there’s a species of… I think ducks, some kind of waterfowl… where the females take on a much more typically male role). So you couldn’t know what the differences are a priori. But it would be very odd if they didn’t exist.

    I’ve seen this dismissed before, but I’ve never seen a good reason for its dismissal. Postulating that none of this applies to humans is basically claiming that we aren’t animals.

  10. Brownian says

    Postulating that none of this applies to humans is basically claiming that we aren’t animals.

    No, for fuck’s fucking sake.

    It’s recognising that human animals display behavioural variability on a level not (yet) seen in any other species.

    Researchers have studied this behavioural variability for centuries. It’s commonly called ‘culture’. Look it up sometime.

  11. Brownian says

  12. Enkidum says

    Brownian,

    Right. But are you seriously claiming that because we have a wide range of culturally-sensitive behaviours, the impact of genetics is nil?

    I’m going to assume not, and that you actually believe that human behavioural tendencies are determined by a complex set of interactions between genetic and cultural factors, interactions that are so complex that it’s often impossible to tease apart the relative extent to which either contributes. That sound about right?

    And don’t put thomaslawson’s madness on me. Like I said, it’s stupid to assume that a 3:1 gender difference in anything is due to genetics. (And in this case, it’s not just stupid to make the assumption because he doesn’t have evidence, it’s almost certainly just false, because we do actually have a lot of evidence in this case that the supposed differences are largely cultural.)

  13. Amphiox says

    Behavioral variation is one thing. Extrapolating from there to overall performance in a complex activity that calls on MULTIPLE behaviors is something else entirely.

    Remember those old studies that claimed that men and women read maps differently? Notwithstanding any issues regarding the quality of that research or whether those observed differences are cultural or innate, those studies also showed that on average, there was no difference in either gender’s success in using a map to navigate a path of travel.

    There’s more than one way to skin a cat. Maybe there are differences in how men and women might do some aspects of something like physics. That doesn’t mean one or the other is necessarily better or worse at doing physics as a whole.

  14. jenny6833a says

    I thought the editorial was excellent. I didn’t see the half-paragraph PZ extracted as containing excuses, but as a listing of a couple of cultural facts that need to be overcome.

    Aside from that relatively minor glitch, I thought PZ adopted the right attitude and tone. I wish others writing on FtB would be equally calm and positive. Outrage may generate hits, but doesn’t do much to solve problems.

  15. hjhornbeck says

    thomaslawson @5:

    There is a sexual bias in certain scientific fields, don’t get me wrong, but perhaps there is also a limited amount of females by natural selection as well?

    If there was a strong natural bias along the sexes, we’d find a strong signal of it when we study sexual differences.

    We don’t.

    Fully 78% of the differences between men and women are small or close to zero. There are three main areas of differences between men and women:

    * Sexuality – in particular attitudes to sex in uncommitted relationships.
    * Aggression – men are generally more aggressive.
    * Motor performance – this is where the largest differences are seen with men being better at throwing, jumping, sprinting and so on.

    I have my doubts about that last one, but you get the point: there is no gender or sex differences when it comes to intellectual matters, hence there should be no gender/sex bias in science.

  16. hjhornbeck says

    jenny6833a @19:

    Aside from that relatively minor glitch, I thought PZ adopted the right attitude and tone. I wish others writing on FtB would be equally calm and positive. Outrage may generate hits, but doesn’t do much to solve problems.

    All right, who ordered the tone troll? Anyone? *sigh*, at least you could have rented them from one of the higher-end boutiques, this bargin-basement crap isn’t very effective…

  17. Brownian says

    Right. But are you seriously claiming that because we have a wide range of culturally-sensitive behaviours, the impact of genetics is nil?

    Not nil. Negligible. Look at the example I (bork) linked: that’s how variable we can be in terms of who we consider related to us. That’s a pretty fundamental aspect of social structure, and one that most assuredly predates career affinities, and just look how variable it is.

    I’m going to assume not, and that you actually believe that human behavioural tendencies are determined by a complex set of interactions between genetic and cultural factors, interactions that are so complex that it’s often impossible to tease apart the relative extent to which either contributes. That sound about right?

    That sounds about right, though the contributions of cultural and genetic factors (specifically, sex-linked genetic factors) are not anywhere near magnitude of effect.

    And it’s not just the case that these interactions are difficult to tease apart. It’s that in conversations such as these, the default seems to ignore culture completely to instead pontificate how our sex-linked genes must be responsible for how we navigate a Wal-Mart.

    Give me a fucking break.

  18. chigau (無) says

    Many of the participants in these discussions also appear to have only a vague notion of what is involved in gathering and hunting.

  19. Enkidum says

    @Brownian 22

    Cool. Couple of things:

    “the contributions of cultural and genetic factors (specifically, sex-linked genetic factors) are not anywhere near magnitude of effect.”

    I’m assuming that’s supposed to be “the same magnitude of effect”?

    In which case… eh, I suspect I would give more credence to genetic differences than you do, but I’d agree that relatively speaking, culture matters A LOT more. More precisely, culture explains a whole bunch more of the variance in behaviour than genetics. This isn’t a hand-wavy theoretical discussion, either, in virtually all of the cases where someone has done a proper comparison, the effect sizes differ drastically such that culture/environment is driving most of the variance.

    But again, that doesn’t mean that genetics isn’t important. “Most” is not “all”. And in terms of sex-linked genetic differences, one of the really big factors is hormonal differences, hormones which are known to cause all sorts of very consistent behavioural effects across all sorts of species. So… I’d be amazed if that didn’t matter in human behaviour. And matter a lot more than you might be comfortable with. Cf. hjhornbeck @20 above. 78% of the supposed differences are negligible – but that means that 22% are not!

    I’d certainly agree that sex matters way less than culture (like, a lot less), but I think many people tend to throw out the baby with the bathwater when they argue against stupid opinions like that of thomaslawson above.

    Like you said, “in conversations such as these, the default seems to ignore culture completely to instead pontificate how our sex-linked genes must be responsible for how we navigate a Wal-Mart”. I agree, that’s just dumb. But the default from… uh… “your side” seems to be to argue that sex-linked genes are totally irrelevant.

    And I can understand why that is – the “other side” in this conversation is normally composed almost exclusively of fools, assholes, and trolls. I’m just saying, keep in mind that there is actually a reasonable position to take about sex differences.

    FWIW, I’m a cognitive psychologist and some of my current work is demonstrating that a previously-accepted sex difference is probably entirely due to culture – I could get into it if anyone’s interested but it’s not exactly earth-shattering.

  20. Thomathy, Holy Trinity of Conflation: Atheist-Secularist-Darwinist says

    I could get into it if anyone’s interested but it’s not exactly earth-shattering.

    Don’t tell whoever it is that funds you that.

    Out with it, in any case, what’s this ‘not exactly earth-shattering’ demonstration in your current work?

  21. unclefrogy says

    how can anyone really even make a comment the implies that Italy is not influenced by sexist thinking in this one area called physics such that they have reached a “natural limit” of 25% percent women. Italy? Is that some kind of ironic joke? In an animal that’s whole life is so dominated by learning and cultural practice that you could really separate in any meaningful way the influences of sex?

    If there are sexual differences in humans that might pertain to these kinds of questions it might be that in modern humans the males seem to do the displaying for attracting mates in many different ways, sports, combat, business, pop music and other areas by competition. In this ego display it is often toward the other males it is directed as a way to declare their superiority their dominance and not for the females.
    That however has little to no influence on the ability in activities that do not rely on physical size or the position of a penis.

    Men and women seem to do the ego competition in a slightly different way, cultural or biological?
    could any of that be determined? not in my life time.

    uncle frogy

  22. DLC says

    There’s some good words in there, but Nature still has a way to go. At least they’ve recognized there is a problem.

    Oh, and . . . it’s all Rebecca Watson’s fault.

  23. Brownian says

    I’m assuming that’s supposed to be “the same magnitude of effect”?

    “the contributions of cultural and genetic factors (specifically, sex-linked genetic factors) are not anywhere near the same magnitude of effect.”

    But again, that doesn’t mean that genetics isn’t important. “Most” is not “all”.

    Of course. But the relative differences do matter.

    And in terms of sex-linked genetic differences, one of the really big factors is hormonal differences, hormones which are known to cause all sorts of very consistent behavioural effects across all sorts of species. So… I’d be amazed if that didn’t matter in human behaviour.

    Do these hormonal differences in animal behaviour affect their behaviours while shopping and choosing university majors more than those animals’ cultural histories of acceptable genders for physicists vs. grocery shoppers?

    Because that’s what the discussion is here.

    I’d similarly be suspicious of any research on lung cancer showing an effect due to environmental factors that didn’t control for smoking status.

    And matter a lot more than you might be comfortable with.

    Is that argumentum ad political correctness?

    Cf. hjhornbeck @20 above. 78% of the supposed differences are negligible – but that means that 22% are not!

    Can’t see the study, have no idea whether or not they controlled for culture.

    I’d certainly agree that sex matters way less than culture (like, a lot less),

    And yet, it’s the first thing skeptics jump to in any discussion of why post Thanksgiving gender roles involve football for the men and dishwashing for the women. It’s in our nature! That’s how the cavemen did it!

    but I think many people tend to throw out the baby with the bathwater when they argue against stupid opinions like that of thomaslawson above.

    Okay, so what proportion of genetics explains the gender disparity in Italian physicists and what proportion is cultural?

    Be sure to note which Italian genes explain why this disparity isn’t universal.

    But the default from… uh… “your side” seems to be to argue that sex-linked genes are totally irrelevant.

    When it comes to shopping behaviour and a preference for physics?

    Yes, especially when the only evidence you’ve offered is some vague notion that sex-linked hormones affect non-human animals.

    You know what’s crazy? Thimerosol is toxic to human animals—no extrapolation from animals required. And yet that fact itself has little predictive power when applied to vaccines and outcomes such as autism.

  24. says

    I don’t know what they are. No one does, and I’m not sure anyone can at the moment, due to the problems Amphiox outlines. In order to find out, you’d have to control other sources of bias, which isn’t possible (in humans) without ethical violations on the order of Naziism.

    Or we could just, you know, get rid of sexism.

    Or is that like Naziism to you?

    Sheesh.

  25. Brownian says

    In order to find out, you’d have to control other sources of bias, which isn’t possible (in humans) without ethical violations on the order of Naziism.

    The non-Nazi versions of studies that attempt to tease out these effects are called cross-cultural.

  26. hjhornbeck says

    Enkidum @24:

    FWIW, I’m a cognitive psychologist and some of my current work is demonstrating that a previously-accepted sex difference is probably entirely due to culture – I could get into it if anyone’s interested but it’s not exactly earth-shattering.

    Good science is the opposite of earth-shattering, it’s one more grain of sand contributing to a pile of consensus. That lone spec outside of the pile is just a single data point, and could represent anything from the approximate location of a future consensus, to a slipped finger while typing a formula into a spreadsheet.

    I second the “out with it.”

  27. Enkidum says

    Brownian,

    I really think we agree on almost everything here, but you’re going out of your way to misinterpret me. I’m very explicitly not claiming that there are sex-linked genetic biases in things like mental rotation, math ability, shopping, or whatever. What proportion of factors affecting gender biases in Italian physics are due to sex-linked genetic differences? Well, I can’t be certain, but I’ll go out on a limb here and make an educated guess that it’s on the order of 0.0000000001%.

    But let me ask you: do you believe that the impact of sex is ALWAYS negligible in human behaviour? If so, do you really believe that? Can you give me a reason why you would think that is the case?

    How can you not see the study linked to at #20? It’s a blog post about a critical review paper. It’s not exactly rocket science.

    Sally Strange @29

    Uh… think I mis-phrased myself. I meant that if you wanted to run a properly-controlled experiment on the relative impacts of genetics and culture today, what you’d have to do is take a few thousand babies and raise them in isolated areas, strictly controlling the kinds of experiences they undergo. Some might think that was unethical? And actually kind of Nazi-ish? (One might refer to these “areas” as “camps” of some kind, for example…)

    For a lot of these things you can run quasi-experiments by looking at the variance which exists naturally. E.g. you can look at the effects of genes on obesity by comparing the obesity rates of Japanese living in San Francisco to Japanese living in Japan, or of Japanese twenty years ago to Japanese today, after shifts towards a more American-style diet. And you realize that a massive amount of the variance in obesity, probably the majority of it, is due to lifestyle. (Then again, that doesn’t mean that genes don’t matter for obesity – there’s plenty of evidence that they do – run the same study with Samoans and you’ll get a very different result.)

    Trouble is it’s very hard to do that for sex differences. You’re right that if we get rid of sexism we’d have a natural experiment all set up and ready to analyze. But we haven’t done that yet, anywhere in the world. About the best we can do (again, today) is compare cultures which are comparatively less sexist than others, but that is messy and hard to interpret for a whole lot of fairly obvious reasons. So it’s virtually impossible, given the current state of the world, to be able to properly look for the almost-certainly-very-subtle effects of sex-linked genetic differences on behaviour. We just don’t have the power or the control (in a statistical sense). And getting that kind of power and control in the present world would require a pretty Nazi-like form of social science. (I’m not Godwinning here – I’m making a very direct comparison to the kinds of scientific results that the Nazis were able to get that we still can’t get today, because they had no ethical qualms about doing horrible, horrible things to other human beings.)

    At any rate, I really did not want to imply some sort of “ur all feminazis” bullshit. Getting rid of the kinds of sex biases that lead to a 3:1 gender imbalance among Italian physicists? Awesome, I would really be a lot happier if that were the case. Atheism+, etc etc etc? Sign me up. (Well, by “sign me up” I mean “I will continue to mostly lurk on blogs that promote it, and I’ll try to be more overt about feminism in my everyday life”.) But none of that means that culture always trumps biology.

  28. says

    I don’t like the fact that no one reiterated the male-dominated syndromes of autism and Asperger’s, which are not 4:1 and 9:1 due to a societal sexual bias. Are females just “not interested” in being diagnosed with either? Are environmental factors keeping them from developing Asperger’s? I don’t think so. They are hormonal.
    .
    What I’m NOT saying is that these disorders make for great scientists. What I AM saying is that traits associated with certain fields of science might lean toward one gender, just like autistic traits “favor” males. That is not controversial when we have evidence that shows, put another way, that males are simply better at being autistic!
    .
    Hypothetically, let’s say that working in a certain field of science required you to have an autism spectrum disorder. Would we be wondering why there was such a low sex ratio for females? We have evidence that ASD’s are more likely in males. We have evidence that race is not a factor. (If there was a lack of black men in that field then we’d have to check for racial bias, but the sexual bias would be confirmed by the evidence that females with ASD’s are more rare.)
    .
    Let’s say that having Asperger’s makes you more likely to be an atheist. What if having some level of Asperger’s is a requirement? The smallest level. Females are outnumbered up to 9 to 1 for Asperger’s. Would we be looking around the conventions and wondering why there were no females when we knew that the prerequisite was rare in women?
    .
    That is all I’m saying.
    .
    And I heard about the 25% Italian female physicists from someone that was lamenting that the U.S.’s ratio was so low. I assumed that Italy was better at making the field egalitarian. It was kind of an “is that the best you can do?” argument.

  29. consciousness razor says

    What I AM saying is that traits associated with certain fields of science might lean toward one gender, just like autistic traits “favor” males.

    They might be, or they are?

    That is not controversial when we have evidence that shows, put another way, that males are simply better at being autistic!

    Where’s the evidence those things are connected? (Not your assumptions that they might be).

    Don’t forget that males also tend to be better penis-havers. Perhaps penis-having is associated with certain fields of science. (I’m not sure which, but possibly some are.) Have you ever considered that?

    That is all I’m saying.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  30. Brownian says

    But let me ask you: do you believe that the impact of sex is ALWAYS negligible in human behaviour? If so, do you really believe that? Can you give me a reason why you would think that is the case?

    Always negligible on human behaviour? Of course not.

    Negligible on any of the behaviours we’re talking about here? Shall I list out the various comments in which I’ve essentially listed it’s the fucking culture already?

    Let’s do this another way. Here’s a wikipedia link to the debate over colour naming and perception surrounding Berlin and Kay’s seminal cross-cultural work on colour terms.

    We know that biology determines what colours humans actually percieve. Yet this hard fact about human biology says almost nothing about which and how many colours various cultures are able to name and recognise. (Neurophysiology has been invoked to both support and refute B&K’s hierarchical hypothesis.)

    If such basic, biological functions such as colour perception and identification are so overwhelmed by cultural influences, why in the world would anyone default to an even more tenuous connection between biology and behaviour, such as most of the sex-attributed behaviours we’re talking about here, when culture is a far more dominant determinant?

    How can you not see the study linked to at #20? It’s a blog post about a critical review paper. It’s not exactly rocket science.

    The link is to a blog post. The paper itself is:

    Hyde, J. S. (2005). The gender similarities hypothesis. American Psychologist, 60(6), 581-92

    and I cannot access the full-text for the article. The blog post itself makes no mention of methodology, nor does it make any mention of controlling for cultural effects.

  31. geoffreybrent says

    @thomaslawson (#33):

    I don’t like the fact that no one reiterated the male-dominated syndromes of autism and Asperger’s, which are not 4:1 and 9:1 due to a societal sexual bias. Are females just “not interested” in being diagnosed with either? Are environmental factors keeping them from developing Asperger’s? I don’t think so. They are hormonal.”

    [citation needed]

    You seem to have a very simplistic notion of how diagnosis works for autism/Asperger’s. (From here on in, assume that when I say ‘autism’ I’m including Asperger’s in that descriptor.)

    These are spectrum conditions. In between neurotypical folk and extreme cases, there are a lot of people who are borderline autistic and who are able (with difficulty) to cope in social situations. There’s plenty of room for social conditioning to influence which of those people are and aren’t diagnosed as autistic. For instance:

    – High-functioning autistic people often develop tricks and work-arounds that let them mask some of the difficulties they have with social interaction. As a generalisation, girls experience more pressure to fit in with their peers, and so they have more motivation to develop these work-arounds, making them less likely to be diagnosed.

    (This is part of why my wife wasn’t diagnosed with Asperger’s until her mid-forties.)

    – One of the common signs of autism is a fascination with some specific area of interest (hyperfocus) – we all know the stereotype of the autistic guy who’s memorised train timetables. But since girls and boys are socialised to have different interests, we may not recognise an autistic girl’s hyperfocus because it doesn’t fit into our stereotype of “what autistic people obsess about”.

    – Doctors diagnose according to their preconceptions (which then generates data which feeds those preconceptions)…

    A quick search on “underdiagnosis of aspergers autism in women” brings up plenty of coverage of this problem. A couple of examples, with quotes:

    http://curingautismtogether.typepad.com/blog/2010/02/women-with-autism-aspergers-syndrome-underdiagnosed-often-selfdiagnosed.html (NB this is a mirror of a Times article, and I’m not endorsing the host site, but I can’t find a working link to the original.)

    “…even when girls are screened for autism it is not picked up. In a study of 60 patients at an English psychiatric hospital, none had an autistic condition diagnosed after routine screening, despite 11 later being shown to have been confirmed cases… Dr Mills believes that because it is assumed that autism is rare in girls, doctors are less likely to consider it. “I have spoken to parents of girls who have said that the first response from the doctor has been, ‘She is a girl, it is highly unlikely to be autism’. Not just GPs but paediatricians too.””

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2009/apr/12/autism-aspergers-girls

    “Girls slip through the diagnostic net, said Attwood, because they are so good at camouflaging or masking their symptoms. “Boys tend to externalise their problems, while girls learn that, if they’re good, their differences will not be noticed… Girls learn to appease and apologise. They learn to observe people from a distance and imitate them. It is only if you look closely and ask the right questions, you see the terror in their eyes and see that their reactions are a learnt script.”” (This matches my wife’s stories very closely.)

  32. Enkidum says

    In response to the deafening chorus of demands that I talk about my research….

    I mostly work on grapheme-colour synaesthesia, which you’ve probably heard of but if you haven’t it’s this weird… condition, for want of a better word… where people experience letters or numbers as having particular colours.

    The modern era of research into syn starts around 1989. From then until… oh, about 2007, it was assumed by the majority of researchers (at least the ones writing the papers) that (a) syn had a strong genetic component, and (b) that this was sex-llnked. Not coincidentally, this was also the era of very genetically-specified-massive-modularity-of-mind, and a few of the big syn researchers were also prominent cheerleaders for Tooby & Cosmides and people like that.

    The reason for (a) was that it’s been obvious for well over a century that syn runs in families (and now there’s a couple of studies directly showing a specific genetic linkage – although, interestingly enough, the two studies that show this don’t actually show the same one, which is kind of cool).

    The reason for (b) was that, again for well over a century, every study of the prevalence of syn found a massive gender difference – between 2:1 to 7:1 women to men.

    So for a while the dominant theory was that syn was an inherited x-linked trait that was also strongly linked to lethality for male fetuses. Too lazy to re-read the papers now, but they gave examples of similar things. And to be fair, this explained the pattern of data. (And this pattern isn’t just found in the published papers either – every researcher, including me, who has a pool of synaesthetic subjects has a massive female bias in that pool.)

    Then in 2007 Julia Simner (awesome fucking researcher) and colleagues do the first properly-controlled study of the prevalence of syn. By which I mean she (a) asks a bunch of randomly-sampled people if they have syn, and then (b) gets them all to take a confirmation test. ALL previous studies, as it turns out, had either not used any form of confirmation test, or had not asked a random sample of people – rather they had done things like post ads in newspapers, or whatever.

    And she gets a 1.2:1.0 ratio of women to men, a difference that is non-significant. Woah. What happened? She interprets it as entirely due to response bias: basically, women are more willing to talk about weird experiences, more likely to respond to experimenter requests, etc etc etc. (This is not meant as a genetic explanation – there are pretty obvious cultural factors at play here.)

    So, is she right?

    Well, enter the second properly-controlled study of synaesthetic prevalence, which is done by me and my colleagues. (Unpublished as of yet, so unless you keep an eye out for it over the next 6 months to a year, you have no way of breaking my anonymity – ha!)

    We looked at 5001 people in the Czech Republic and 6663 people in Canada – orders of magnitude bigger than any previous study. (The reason for these populations? Eh, I won’t get into it, but basically we were expecting a strong culturally-driven effect that we didn’t find, but we found other cool cultural things that I’m also not going to tell you about. What I am going to tell you about is our gender results, which were not at all the main focus.)

    So… we handed out a paper survey to everyone, asked them if they had these types of experiences. Everyone who reported that they did, we asked them to take an online verification test.

    Among the Canadians, like Simner, we get no gender difference at all. Among the Czechs, we still get a big gender difference. But if you look at the stages of the study (filling the survey, signing up for the online test, actually completing the online test, and being confirmed as synaesthetic), what happens is that we can see a differential attrition rate: men drop out faster than women. So at each stage of the study, the sample becomes more and more female-dominated, and this accounts for virtually all of the gender difference.

    So… what does this show? Basically that Simner is right – the previous gender biases were entirely due to differences in compliance.

    I suppose you could argue that those differences are genetic, but fuck off if you do.

  33. Enkidum says

    @Brownian:

    Always negligible on human behaviour? Of course not.

    Negligible on any of the behaviours we’re talking about here? Shall I list out the various comments in which I’ve essentially listed it’s the fucking culture already?

    I’m not sure who the “we” is here. I haven’t said a damn thing about shopping or physics, other than to explicitly deny that they are sex-determined.

    And you’re arguing from the wrong end. Yes, you’ve said a lot about how it’s the culture that matters. No one is disputing that, and I’ve been very explicit in agreeing with you. But you have been very reluctant to acknowledge the role of genetics, in fact your “Of course not” is the first time you’ve given a clear indication that you think genes play a non-trivial role, and in fact most of what you’ve said previously suggests that you think their role is trivial. (Question: if there are behaviours for which the influence of sex-linked genes is important, which ones are these? What effects do they have on daily life? On society?)

    As for your colour perception stuff… Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems very clear that many colour category boundaries are virtually entirely culturally determined (like Russian golobloy or however you spell it), but some seem to have some genetic basis as well. Been a while since I’ve read the literature, but that’s what I recall the general consensus being. Why is that evidence that we should ignore the role of genetics on human behaviour? And if it isn’t, what are you talking about it for?

    At any rate, please argue with me, and not with the legions of assholes who come trolling. I’m not talking gibberish, I’m not arguing for hunting vs gathering styles or innate male dominance of math or whatever, and unless I’m very much mistaken I’m simply a lot better informed about this stuff than you are, because it’s kind of my job. Chill, son.

    BTW I would highly recommend Robert Sapolsky’s free online course on the Biology of Human Behaviour if you’re interested in learning more about this stuff. It’s really, really, really fucking good, and you’d find plenty of support for your basic line of arguments.

  34. Enkidum says

    @chigau & brownian – Thanks – it’s been like 5 years of fucking work getting to these results, so I’m really glad that they’re finally making sense!

    @brownian – You happen to know a Dave G. who was an undergrad in math and philosophy at U of A and later moved to Vancouver? He thinks you’re an old friend of his, and at any rate I’m not him but he’s mentioned that he thinks he knows you a couple of times.

  35. hjhornbeck says

    Brownian @35: I got your back.

    Enkidum @37: Awesome, those years of hard work have paid off in a big way!

    thomaslawson: You’ve got a layman’s understanding of science. Look at what Enkidum and co. pulled off: they gathered a bunch of people toghether, asked them questions, and analyzed the results. There’s no flash of brilliance and insight, it required far more patience and communication than intelligence. The more science papers you read, the more you realize that the vast majority are simply taking the next step.

    You don’t have to be smart to be a scientist. Your success depends far more on socials skills and dedication. Asperger’s or Autism is no net advantage there. And that’s not even factoring in geoffrybrent’s excellent point at comment 36. Even a spread of 9:1 can be explained by social factors, in some circumstances.

  36. Brownian says

    I’m not sure who the “we” is here. I haven’t said a damn thing about shopping or physics, other than to explicitly deny that they are sex-determined.

    At any rate, please argue with me, and not with the legions of assholes who come trolling.

    Yeah well, right back at the person who wrote:

    I’d certainly agree that sex matters way less than culture (like, a lot less), but I think many people tend to throw out the baby with the bathwater when they argue against stupid opinions like that of thomaslawson above.

    Like you said, “in conversations such as these, the default seems to ignore culture completely to instead pontificate how our sex-linked genes must be responsible for how we navigate a Wal-Mart”. I agree, that’s just dumb. But the default from… uh… “your side” seems to be to argue that sex-linked genes are totally irrelevant.

    Relevant parts in bold.

    As for the rest:

    But you have been very reluctant to acknowledge the role of genetics, in fact your “Of course not” is the first time you’ve given a clear indication that you think genes play a non-trivial role, and in fact most of what you’ve said previously suggests that you think their role is trivial.

    The role of genetics in what? So far, three behaviours are on the table in this thread: being an editor for Nature, shopping, and being physicists. Do genetics play a role in these? I’ve argued explicitly that the role of genetics (specifically, sex-determined charateristics) is negligible/trivial for these. You haven’t brought anything to the table to counter that.

    I have not once claimed that there are no behaviours which have some genetic component. If you’re upset that “some people” and “my side” has claimed that, take it up with them.

    (Question: if there are behaviours for which the influence of sex-linked genes is important, which ones are these? What effects do they have on daily life? On society?)

    You tell me. You’re the one insisting that the potential relationship between sex-linked genes and behaviour should be acknowledged. Why are you asking me to make your argument for you?

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems very clear that many colour category boundaries are virtually entirely culturally determined (like Russian golobloy or however you spell it), but some seem to have some genetic basis as well. Been a while since I’ve read the literature, but that’s what I recall the general consensus being.

    “Some genetic basis as well”. It is utterly impossible to know to which you refer when you make claims like that.

    In any case, Here’s some recent literature supporting the hypothesis that which colours are most likely to have language terms than others may have to do with which colours our cones are more receptive to. That would be consistent with the specific colours described by B&K in their hierarchy of priority terms (including their most recent book, World Color Survey) but not with their revised observation about the importance of identifying ‘warm’ and ‘cool’ colours which occurs more often than the identification of specific colours other than black and white.

    My point in bringing this up is to note that in a process for which we have extremely excellent biological and physical information (i.e. the wavelengths our cones maximally respond to), the dominance of cultural effects cannot be understated.

    I’m not talking gibberish, I’m not arguing for hunting vs gathering styles or innate male dominance of math or whatever, and unless I’m very much mistaken I’m simply a lot better informed about this stuff than you are, because it’s kind of my job.

    Then which behaviours are you talking about? Other than the behaviours already identified, the only sex-linked behaviour you’ve explicitly mentioned is the compliance in the grapheme-colour synaesthesia studies, which you’ve simply waved away as due to genetics.

    So what exactly are you talking about here?

    All you’ve said so far that anyone can possible deal with is that you’re “far more on [thomaslawson’s] side than most of the commenters here, and then you went on to describe hir opinions as ‘stupid’. You then went on to make some vague claim about behaviours in animals, after starting off with the bizarro claim that “Postulating that none of this applies to humans is basically claiming that we aren’t animals”, which is flat out wrong.

    Chill, son.

    What exactly was your intent with this imperative?

    If it’s consistent with the explicit message, then that’s a really ineffective communication method.

    @brownian – You happen to know a Dave G. who was an undergrad in math and philosophy at U of A and later moved to Vancouver? He thinks you’re an old friend of his, and at any rate I’m not him but he’s mentioned that he thinks he knows you a couple of times.

    Yes, I’ve whiled away many an hour with Dave. Say hello to him for me.

  37. Enkidum says

    Brownian – eh, we really don’t have much of a disagreement, I think. This may have more to do with the current crowds of people we hang out with, but I often end up having to defend that (gasp!) genetics influences human behaviour against well-intentioned folks who think that’s a priori false. If that’s not you, then at best we have a difference in emphasis. So yeah, some projecting from my side.

    As for what behaviours? Honestly I don’t know. I mean, I’m assuming most forms of aggression have some fairly important testosterone component involved, and that’s going to be heavily sex-dependent (although even the degree to which testosterone gets expressed is almost certainly going to be culture-dependent as well. Beyond that? Maybe something to do with relationships to babies? I really don’t know. What I keep insisting, though is that there have to be some behaviours like this. I do not believe that the fact we have a big brain with a whole whack of cortex (which is what underlies culture) is enough to make sex-specific effects whittle away to nothing.

    And it’s going to be really, really hard to figure out what these effects are. Because in almost every case, they’re going to be far weaker than the effects of culture, which will be brutally difficult to control for (even given unreasonably good cross-cultural studies). Hence the whole Nazi thing I got into above.

    (And not sure if I’m reading you wrong, but I’m definitely not asserting the syn effects are due to genetics – I’m explicitly denying this, not because I have firm proof but because it’s far simpler to assume these are cultural effects.)

    Perhaps I’m arguing with a strawman, but I do worry when reading this blog (particularly on days like today) that the default assumption is that sex cannot determine behaviour over and above the effects of culture. And everything I know about biology makes that so implausible I find it hard to take seriously. But if you’re not saying that (and I’m honestly not sure if you are or not), then I don’t think we’ve got a disagreement.

    One more thing – you seem to think I’m being very hand-wavy about non-human animals. Look, do you seriously need a citation for me saying that there are strong genetic determinants of sex differences in… oh… virtually every mammal? Seriously? Because I’m not going to give you one.

  38. Enkidum says

    thomaslawson…

    So a couple of things. First, good that you’re not getting too fussy about getting piled on in fairly rude ways – that’s just the way it works here, in my experience.

    Second, yeah, the whole physics thing – you’re probably just wrong about that. Especially saying the 3:1 ratio is a natural limit. (And why you would think that Italy is less sexist than America is beyond me.)

    Third, autism. I’d actually tentatively disagree with hjhornbeck and suggest that there are reasons to think you’ll find more autists (and certainly more high functioning Aspergers-y types) among scientists, and among academics in general (although I have to admit I don’t know the relevant research here). But (a) as someone up above pointed out, there are very good reasons to think that autism is under-diagnosed in women, and (b) I think there are also very good reasons to think that autism is a hell of a lot more cultural than is generally acknowledged. (Again, I don’t know if there’s a lot of literature on this, but I keep thinking about switching fields and working on the cultural components of autism.)

    I think about a decade ago I would probably have said almost word for word a lot of what you’ve said. And this is anecdata, but the main thing that stopped me thinking that way was getting into my current field and realizing that I was surrounded by women who were just better at all the traditionally male aspects of the field (e.g. statistics) than I am. And I’m a lot better at those aspects of the field than the average layman. I don’t think there’s anything magical about the women I’m surrounded with, I think they’re just really fucking smart, and good with numbers, in a way that they’re not traditionally supposed to be. Why the conflict with the traditional view? Because it’s probably just wrong, at least to a very large extent.

  39. Brownian says

    If that’s not you, then at best we have a difference in emphasis. So yeah, some projecting from my side.

    Fair enough, and we probably don’t even have that much of a difference in emphasis—I was much more arguing against those who default to the genetic explanation, which is clearly not you. So, projection from my end too.

    As for what behaviours? Honestly I don’t know. I mean, I’m assuming most forms of aggression have some fairly important testosterone component involved, and that’s going to be heavily sex-dependent (although even the degree to which testosterone gets expressed is almost certainly going to be culture-dependent as well. Beyond that? Maybe something to do with relationships to babies? I really don’t know. What I keep insisting, though is that there have to be some behaviours like this. I do not believe that the fact we have a big brain with a whole whack of cortex (which is what underlies culture) is enough to make sex-specific effects whittle away to nothing.

    In the time I spent on the bus trip home between my last post to reading your response, I’d considered that you might be talking about (for example) the relationship between testosterone and aggression, and I agree with this paragraph in general, except for the have to be some behaviours part. Not that I am denying that there aren’t sex-specific effects at all, but that even those, such as aggression and child-rearing have cultural effects that are probably paramount. Further, I’d say that intra-sexual variation between individual attitudes to babies or aggression may outweigh both cultural and sex as determining factors.

    Perhaps I’m arguing with a strawman, but I do worry when reading this blog (particularly on days like today) that the default assumption is that sex cannot determine behaviour over and above the effects of culture. And everything I know about biology makes that so implausible I find it hard to take seriously. But if you’re not saying that (and I’m honestly not sure if you are or not), then I don’t think we’ve got a disagreement.

    No, that isn’t my position. I recognise that I’ve probably been unclear on that.

    So no, we don’t seem to be disagreeing on much at all, other than the above noted part.

    One more thing – you seem to think I’m being very hand-wavy about non-human animals. Look, do you seriously need a citation for me saying that there are strong genetic determinants of sex differences in… oh… virtually every mammal? Seriously? Because I’m not going to give you one.

    No, of course not. I don’t disagree with this claim, but I don’t see that part as all that relevant. I was only arguing for the primacy of culture in shaping human behaviour, which of course non-human animals don’t have*, and all of my examples of the cultural variability of human animals were intended to illustrate that.

    Oh, and thanks for the Robert Sapolsky reference. I knew the name (though I for some reason always mentally merge him with the late paleontologist Jack Sepkoski), so I’ll take a look at

    *I am aware of research that hints at culture in some mammals such as some cetaceans and chimpanzees. That is some interesting stuff.

    So, are you and Dave colleagues, friends, or both?

  40. Brownian says

    First, good that you’re not getting too fussy about getting piled on in fairly rude ways – that’s just the way it works here, in my experience.

    It’s…cultural.

    [Ducks.]

  41. says

    Perhaps I’m arguing with a strawman, but I do worry when reading this blog (particularly on days like today) that the default assumption is that sex cannot determine behaviour over and above the effects of culture. And everything I know about biology makes that so implausible I find it hard to take seriously. But if you’re not saying that (and I’m honestly not sure if you are or not), then I don’t think we’ve got a disagreement.

    Cite examples. Cause other than behavior like peeing position, nursing, and birthing I’m having trouble thinking of things where sex specifically would vastly dwarf any cultural influence.

  42. Brownian says

    Cause other than behavior like peeing position

    Do women not sit down to pee?

    Then how in the world do you read on the toilet?

  43. John Morales says

    Brownian

    Do women not sit down to pee?

    Culture!

    (Most don’t have to; also, [TMI] I’ve been known to sit down for the combo of excretory functions)

  44. Brownian says

    (Most don’t have to; also, [TMI] I’ve been known to sit down for the combo of excretory functions)

    Don’t have to sit down?

    Then how in the world are they supposed to read on the toilet?

    [Smacks forehead.]

    Of course! They must stand up in cultures with strong oral traditions.

  45. Enkidum says

    Uh… in no particular order:

    I’d like to see a study on the increase in sitting down to pee among men after the invention of the smartphone. Pretty sure it’s there…

    @Ing 50: No, I really don’t mean that sex would “vastly dwarf any cultural influence”. In fact, my default position is exactly the reverse. But hey, if culture explains 90% of variance and sex explains 10%, 10% ain’t bad for social psychology (seriously, it isn’t).

    @Brownian various: Dave and I did our MA together, many moons ago (though not as many moons ago as your time with him). I’m actually dropping by his place in about an hour to booze it up.

    Yeah, I think I’m on board with pretty much your whole line of thinking, then. Let me be extra-explicit: even in my fantasy cases where I have firmly established a sex-based influence on behaviour, I’d guess that it would be far less than cultural/experiential factors. (Your point about intra-sexual variation is a good one – I’ve just been lumping anything that isn’t genes together, but obviously that’s a gross oversimplification.)

    Finally, seriously check out that Sapolsky course if you’ve got the time (it’s a full undergrad course, so it’s not a small time commitment, but it blew my mind). And his books are really good as well – I highly recommend A Primate’s Memoir, not for learning about sex biases, but simply for learning about what a weird life it is for a short Jewish guy looking at monkeys amongst the Masai.

  46. says

    @Enkidum:

    1. Yeah, I’ve been reading for a few years. Not usually called stupid, though.

    2. The numbers for Italy are apparently better than the States. I think the U.S. is 11% at last check. Maybe most are in the part of Italy closest to Switzerland?

    3. Autism is tested on infants, so its numbers are probably more accurate than Asperger’s.

  47. Enkidum says

    thomaslawson – wasn’t calling you stupid, just what you’d said. Important distinction.

  48. Enkidum says

    and specifically the “natural limit” thing, which apparently wasn’t what you meant. So stupid phrasing, at worst.

  49. says

    * Sexuality – in particular attitudes to sex in uncommitted relationships.
    * Aggression – men are generally more aggressive.
    * Motor performance – this is where the largest differences are seen with men being better at throwing, jumping, sprinting and so on.

    I’d bet a fairly large amount that 1) and 3) at least are pretty heavily culturally mediated. For 1) I recall the recent study on attitudes towards casual sex which controlled for perceived threat levels and likelihood of satisfaction(I don’t have a link ands I’m feeling lazy right now, I can look it up later), and 3) could easily have to do with the relative amounts of encouragement received in early childhood towards athletic activities. Just pointing that out.

  50. says

    No, I really don’t mean that sex would “vastly dwarf any cultural influence”. In fact, my default position is exactly the reverse. But hey, if culture explains 90% of variance and sex explains 10%, 10% ain’t bad for social psychology (seriously, it isn’t).

    This is why I was looking for examples. I think either earlier or elsewhere in the hinting/gathering topic I mentioned that IMO it seems more plausible that rather than men and women being hardwired for different thought patterns it was more likely that dimorphism caused cultures to teach men to ‘hunt’ and those who can’t hunt are taught to gather or other non hunting things. That is something that based on how you’re looking at is both cultural and biologically based

  51. Enkidum says

    @Ing 60. Well, the best specific example I can give you is aggression. Which is obviously heavily culturally influenced (and, as Brownian points out somewhere above, the intra-sex and intra-culture differences – i.e. good old fashioned individual differences – are probably bigger than the inter-sex and inter-culture differences). But I think we have very good reason to think that there is an extremely important testosterone-based difference there, which is going to be, in large part, due to sex differences.

    Again, I suspect that if we had some magic way of measuring this, the influences of culture on violence would still be vastly more important than inter-sex differences. But I think the sex influence is likely important, at the very least.

  52. aluchko says

    It seems to me that there’s a few different questions here.

    1) There are big cultural factors that lead to men being more numerous in the sciences, particularly in the top ranks. The question is whether these differences are due to primary genetic factors (ie men are naturally more drawn to that type of thinking, men make lifestyle choices that lead to academia, men have a higher variance, woman are more compassionate so prefer to raise the kids, etc), or secondary genetic factors (men are more aggressive and dominant so tend to take the best jobs and roles for themselves).

    2) To what degree should we try to fight or change the cultural factors at work in 1). If you think the primary reason is primary genetic factors your answer is probably ‘not a lot’ since the difference would be largely voluntary, if it’s secondary genetic factors you probably think ‘quite a bit’ because the difference would be forced.

    Personally I suspect most of the cultural difference is due to secondary factors of men being more dominant and aggressive, and thus should be corrected, though I suspect that even without the secondary factors there would still be a somewhat significant difference.

  53. hjhornbeck says

    Looks like we’re slowly converging on a consensus. Just a few things to tidy up:

    thomaslawson @56:

    Yeah, I’ve been reading for a few years. Not usually called stupid, though.

    For my part, I don’t think you’re stupid. Misinformed, at worst, but it looks like my main beef is with Scientific American.

    Ing @50:

    Cause other than behavior like peeing position

    Argh, NOBODY remembers the opening scene in The Full Monty! Gaz’s ex-wife Mandy wanders into the men’s room accidentally with her friends while drunk, and manages to pee into a urinal fairly easily. Women can pee while standing, so Google tells me, they just have to angle their pelvis properly and get their fingertips a bit wet.

  54. bradleybetts says

    @thomaslawson

    “I suppose the journals should represent the sexual ratio of the planet, but if we magically removed the biases in all fields, some fields would still be dominated by males. In Italy, women physicists number up to 25% in the field; not because that’s a pre-determined allowance, but a natural limit.”

    Look, I am perfectly willing to accept the possibility that there are innate differences in the thought patterns of the two sexes that are going to make women better at some tasks/disciplines than men, and vice versa, generally speaking (that last part is important). This makes logical sense and I really wish that someone would do some serious research on the subject and put the question to bed once and for all, rather than leaving it all to a bunch of MRA’s who just want a way to dress their misogyny up in a white coat. It’s perfectly possible that, all biases having been removed, men will still in general be better at physics than women; at the moment we don’t know. But your assertion that there will be some sort of “natural limit” makes no sense. I mean, even if it turns out that men’s method of thinking does make them better suited to physics it could only ever be an indication that they are better at it in general because of the massive variation between individuals. I can’t see any way in which it could ever determine a hard statistical limit. Exactly what factors do you think would determine such a limit?

  55. bradleybetts says

    @geoffreybrent

    ““Girls slip through the diagnostic net, said Attwood, because they are so good at camouflaging or masking their symptoms. “Boys tend to externalise their problems, while girls learn that, if they’re good, their differences will not be noticed… Girls learn to appease and apologise. They learn to observe people from a distance and imitate them.”

    Since we’re on the subject of sex differences this does beg the question; why are girls so much better than boys at masking their symptoms?

  56. says

    Since we’re on the subject of sex differences this does beg the question; why are girls so much better than boys at masking their symptoms?

    Childhood socialization. The part you quoted even says so explicitly. Young girls are expected to be sociable, sweet, cooperative, etc, while little boys are allowed to be grumpy loners if that’s their inclination (it was certainly mine, although I haven’t got Asberger’s).

  57. Esteleth مقدس پنیر اور بسکٹ کے ساتھ says

    Two things:

    Since we’re on the subject of sex differences this does beg the question; why are girls so much better than boys at masking their symptoms?

    Because girls are punished more harshly for displaying the symptoms of autism than boys are.

    Autism is tested on infants, so its numbers are probably more accurate than Asperger’s.

    Who the what now? Asperger’s is a subtype of autism. And autism is not tested on infants. Or in infants, for that matter. You fail at grammar and in psychology.