Abolish Gender, unless it’s convenient for us

I was mulling over a post on Meghan Murphy, someone I’d heard about via Bill C-16, when I noticed Shiv beat me to it and did a much better job than I could. She even makes the same point I would have reached for:

… socialization cannot be both something that is possible to reject–as these feminists do with feminine gender roles–and also inevitable destiny. These are obviously mutually exclusive states. That women buck against the subordination expected of them by patriarchs is plain evidence that these socialized experiences are not fixed points of references but experiences that can be continuously and willfully re-contextualized. And if that’s the case, so-called “male socialization”–the standard idea of which does not map neatly to trans women’s experiences–is not as useful if one’s intention is to drive a wedge between cis and trans womanhood. That this observation is seldom accounted for in the TERF mythology speaks to its importance in these kinds of narratives.

This bugged me when I first learned of TERFs, I found it bizarre that they simultaneously argued gender is fluid like water, yet sticks to you like superglue.

… if anatomy is so strongly associated with a tendency to violence, how can you hope to improve things by destroying the concept of “gender?” …  I have yet to see a single TERF with a self-coherent view of sex/gender. That’s because their “criticism” isn’t actually a critique, based on solid evidence and analysis, but a fig leaf to disguise their bigotry.

I prefer Shiv’s phrasing, though, and her post covers a lot more than one note. Give it a boo.

The Cry of the Bigot

Hmph, yet again I find myself late to the party. Shiv has an excellent article up on Jesse Singal.
Back when Singal first started cluelessly meandering into trans issues, virtually every trans feminist academic I read approached him with kiddie gloves. Julia Serano gave an interview with him to help orient his slant on a Ken Zucker piece in relation to empirical evidence–he declined to use any of the information she provided. Same thing with Parker Molloy, who goes to great lengths to avoid calling Singal transphobic despite his omission of Molloy’s attempt to introduce the evidence to him. A blogger by the pseudonym of Cerberus has meticulously documented Singal’s foray into trans issues, and spends several years trying to patiently explain the sheer amount of denialism necessary to maintain the opinions Singal defends.
The chain of causality is a bit convoluted. Rebecca Tuvel wrote a clueless article comparing “transracialism” to gender identity. Some academics popped up to say “you missed the boat, and here’s why.”[2] Singal responded with, in part:
This is a witch hunt. There has simply been an explosive amount of misinformation circulating online about what is and isn’t in Tuvel’s article, which few of her most vociferous critics appear to have even skimmed, based on their inability to accurately describe its contents.
Yeeeah. There’s meatier arguments within Singal’s article, but the histrionics are well out of line. Myers noticed this too, but I want to highlight the hyperbole as a warning flag.
[9:35] HARRIS: The purpose of the podcast was to set the record straight, because I find the dishonesty and hypocrisy and moral cowardice of Murray’s critics shocking, and the fact that I was taken in by this defamation of him and effectively became part of a silent mob that was just watching what amounted to a modern witch-burning, that was intolerable to me. So it is with real pleasure (and some trepidation) that I bring you a very controversial conversation, on points about which there is virtually no scientific controversy. […]

In thinking about the frenzied monstering of me on Freethought Blogs over the past few weeks, I realized I must have been laboring under a misapprehension all the time I was there. I thought it was a network that was partly about thinking – thinking as such, thinking as a value, thinking as a goal and a pursuit and a method. I knew it was about other things too, of course, especially secularism and atheism and also progressive causes, but I did think it put the “thought” part front and center. […]

I think Freethought Blogs the network has taken a hard turn to anti-intellectualism for the sake of absolutist political commitment. I think political commitments need to be accompanied by thinking.

Benson in particular makes a fine example of this, as not only has she endorsed describing any pushback against transphobia as “witch hunts,” she’s also mocked people for playing the “witch hunt” card and hosted a co-blogger who speaks out against actual witch hunts. It’s amazing to watch the ease with which she pulls out hyperbole right to this day, to paint herself as the victim of a vast conspiracy of the blind.

One of the things I loathe most about the “SHUN HER NOW” school of non-thought is the way it forbids all that and insists that thinking has to be replaced with formulas and that the formulas have to be repeated exactly or dire punishment will follow. In short I loathe the banning of thought and probing and questions. I think I knew I couldn’t stay at FTB any longer when the goons started mocking me for daring to say it made a difference whether we were talking about ontology or politics. Fucking hell, if we can’t make distinctions as basic as that how can we think at all?

Back in the day, I pointed out this feeds “into the heightened emotions and paranoia Benson needs to keep other people (and perhaps herself) from looking at the evidence.” It is the cry of the bigot: hyperbolic and emotionally charged, so as to drive out self-reflection and critical thought. Watch for it.

Intersex and Sex Denialism

This was a pleasant surprise.

For generations those who, for biological reasons, don’t fit the usual male/female categories have faced violence and stigma in Kenya. Intersex people – as they are commonly known in Kenya – were traditionally seen as a bad omen bringing a curse upon their family and neighbours. Most were kept in hiding and many were killed at birth. But now a new generation of home-grown activists and medical experts are helping intersex people to come out into the open. They’re rejecting the old idea that intersex people must be assigned a gender in infancy and stick to it and are calling on the government to instead grant them legal recognition.

While some of those people are trans*, that podcast does talk with a number of intersex people as well. It’s great to see more advocacy, I just wish I’d see more of it in North America and less of this.

The facts of the world generally don’t support transphobic arguments, and transphobes don’t really have the option of making robust arguments based on an honest assessment of the current state of our knowledge. They know this – they make use of this same technique of pondering counterfactuals. The difference is that they work backwards to fabricate an entirely new counter-reality, tailored to support their positions and vast enough that it can substitute for reality itself in a person’s mind. It’s called denialism: an entire ideological support system made to preserve a desired belief by rejecting the overwhelming evidence that would threaten this belief.

Denialism is wrongness with an infrastructure – ignorance with an armored shell, a whole fake world weaponized against the real world.

Less of “denialism,” that is, not good analysis or Zinnia Jones. She gets a bit meta behind the link, and the contents are applicable to much more than transphobia. It’s worth a full read.
(That last item comes courtesy of Shiv. Support her work, too!)

Intelligence and Race, in sub-populations

I’ve read a fair number of papers covering race and genes. In fact, before I go farther, here’s a bibliography:

In this article, the authors argue that the overwhelming portion of the literature on intelligence, race, and genetics is based on folk taxonomies rather than scientific analysis. They suggest that because theorists of intelligence disagree as to what it is, any consideration of its relationships to other constructs must be tentative at best. They further argue that race is a social construction with no scientific definition. Thus, studies of the relationship between race and other constructs may serve social ends but cannot serve scientific ends. No gene has yet been conclusively linked to intelligence, so attempts to provide a compelling genetic link of race to intelligence are not feasible at this time. The authors also show that heritability, a behavior-genetic concept, is inadequate in regard to providing such a link.

Sternberg, Robert J., Elena L. Grigorenko, and Kenneth K. Kidd. “Intelligence, race, and genetics.” American Psychologist 60.1 (2005): 46.

The literature on candidate gene associations is full of reports that have not stood up to rigorous replication. This is the case both for straightforward main effects and for candidate gene-by-environment interactions (Duncan and Keller 2011). As a result, the psychiatric and behavior genetics literature has become confusing and it now seems likely that many of the published findings of the last decade are wrong or misleading and have not contributed to real advances in knowledge. The reasons for this are complex, but include the likelihood that effect sizes of individual polymorphisms are small, that studies have therefore been underpowered, and that multiple hypotheses and methods of analysis have been explored; these conditions will result in an unacceptably high proportion of false findings (Ioannidis 2005).

Hewitt, John K. “Editorial Policy on Candidate Gene Association and Candidate Gene-by-Environment Interaction Studies of Complex Traits.” Behavior Genetics 42, no. 1 (January 1, 2012): 1–2. doi:10.1007/s10519-011-9504-z.

[Read more…]

Unhealthy Acts

If there’s one thing Canadian can agree on, it’s that our health care system is better than the one in the USA. It’s a chronic talking point.

“Canadians have a genuine fear of ‘American-style’ health care, and any discussion of private partnership in health is quickly quelled for this reason,” the [Ontario Chamber of Commerce] wrote. “But this ignores both the considerable share of health care already delivered by the private sector as well as the robust and equitable role of industry in other single-payer models such as the United Kingdom’s National Health Service or Australia’s Medicare.”

I think it’s actually a problem, as we should be comparing our system to the superior ones in Britain and France rather than being thankful we don’t have it worse. But just when I think the narrative will shift, things like this keep popping up.

The MacArthur-Meadows amendment to the AHCA, proposed by Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (R-NC) and Rep. Tom MacArthur (R-NJ), co-chair of the moderate Republican Tuesday Group, would allow states to waive the current ban that prevents insurance companies from charging premium rates to customers based on their health history. This essentially allows pre-Obamacare discriminatory practices to once again be legalized. […]

If the MacArthur-Meadows amendment allows this type of discrimination to come back under the AHCA, survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence would face an extremely difficult decision: seek treatment and be forced to potentially pay more for health insurance, or refuse to go to the doctor and remain untreated for horrific injuries they have endured both mentally and physically. […]

Other largely gender-specific conditions, like postpartum depression and C-sections, would also be considered preexisting conditions under the new health care plan.

Cesarian sections? Sexual assault?! Oh, but it gets worse.

(The American Health Care Act could once again allow insurers to charge people more with these “preexisting conditions” ) * Breast cancer * Uterine cancer * Pregnancy or expectant parent * A Cesarean delivery * Being a survivor of domestic violence * Medical treatment for sexual assault * Mental disorders (severe, e.g., bipolar, eating disorder) * AIDS/HIV * Lupus * Alcohol abuse/drug abuse with recent treatment * Alzheimer’s/dementia * Multiple sclerosis * Arthritis (rheumatoid), fibromyalgia, other inflammatory joint disease * Muscular dystrophy * Any cancer within some period of time (e.g., 10 years, often other than basal skin cancer) * Obesity, severe * Cerebral palsy * Organ transplant * Congestive heart failure * Paraplegia * Coronary artery/heart disease, bypass surgery * Paralysis * Crohn’s disease/ ulcerative colitis * Parkinson’s disease * Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)/emphysema * Pending surgery or hospitalization * Diabetes mellitus * Pneumocystic pneumonia * Epilepsy * Hemophilia * Sleep apnea * Hepatitis (hep C) * Stroke * Kidney disease, renal failure * Transsexualism (Other conditions insurers could use to increase the cost of insurance ) * Urinary tract infections * Menstrual irregularities * Migraine headaches * Acne * Allergies * Anxiety * Asthma * Basal cell skin cancer * Depression * Ear infections * Fractures * High cholesterol * Hypertension * Incontinence * Joint injuries * Kidney stones * Overweight * Restless leg syndrome * Tonsillitis * Varicose veins * Vertigo

Having hemophilia, allergies, or menstrual irregularities are grounds to charge you more for medical care?! Jesus, America, you really need to get your shit together. Some day I wish I’ll be able to say “if only the Canadian health-care system was as good as the one in the US.”

Where Bigotry Thrives

All of us strive to be rational. We believe that reality does not contradict itself, that something cannot exist and not exist at the same time. So when we encounter a contradiction we believe in, we discard it to align ourselves closer to reality. But there’s another, more human reason to weed out contradictions in our views.

Charles Murray, in his interview with Sam Harris, was grilled a bit on universal basic income.

[1:53:17] HARRIS: I’ve heard you talk about it and this is a surprise because, in “Coming Apart” you are fairly critical of the welfare state in all its guises and you- you just said something that at least implied disparagement of the welfare state in Europe, as we know it, so tell me why you are an advocate for universal basic income.

[1:53:40] MURRAY: Well, I first wrote [a] book back in two thousand five or six, called “In Our Hands,” but I did it initially for the same reason that Milton Friedman was in favor of a negative income tax, the idea is that you replace the current system with the universal basic income and, that, you leave people alone to make their decisions about how to use it.

And yet, back in 1984, Murray was singing a different tune.

In Losing Ground, Charles Murray shows that the great proliferation of social programs and policies of the mid-’60s made it profitable for the poor to behave in the short term in ways that were destructive in the long term.

Murray comprehensively documents and analyzes the disturbing course of Great Society social programs. Challenging popular notions that Great Society programs marked the beginning of improvement in the situation of the poor, Murray shows substantial declines in poverty prior to 1964-but slower growth, no growth, and retreat from progress as public assistance programs skyrocketed.

If we truly want to improve the lot of the poor, Murray declares, we should look to equality of opportunity and to education and eliminate the transfer programs that benefit neither recipient nor donor.

Murray was influential in Reagan’s war on the poor, which argued poor people would unwisely spend their government assistance cheques, yet now he’s arguing that the poor should be given government assistance without strings attached?! He never acknowledges his about-face, but I think this part of the interview is telling.

[2:00:11] MURRAY: There will be work disincentives, but we are already at a point, Sam, where something more than 20 percent of working-age males with high school diplomas, and no more [education than that], are out of the labor force. So we already have a whole lot of guys, sitting at home, in front of a TV set or a gameboy, probably stoned on meth, or- or opioids, doing nothing. We got a problem already and I see a lot of ways in which the moral agency that an income would give could make the problem less.

[2:00:46] HARRIS: Did the dysfunction you, you see in white and largely rural America now, is it analogous to the dysfunction that we were seeing in the in the black inner-city starting a few decades ago? Are there important differences, or- or how do you how do you view that?

[2:01:05] MURRAY: In some ways it followed pretty much the same trajectory. Way back in nineteen ninety two, or three it was, I had an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal called “Becoming a White Underclass,” and I was simply tracking the growth in a non-marital births among white working-class people, and I said to myself, along with Pat Moynihan who said it better and first, that if you have communities in which large numbers of young men are growing to adulthood without a male figure, you asked for and get chaos. And I assume that what had happened in the black community when non-marital births, uh, kept on going up is going to happen in the white community. So in that sense they follow pretty much a predictable trajectory.

In the 1980’s, the face of poverty was black and addicted to drugs. Now, it’s white and addicted to drugs. Changing the race of those impoverished may have changed Murray’s views of poverty.

We dug into a contradiction Murray held, and found bigotry hiding underneath. This is no coincidence, persistent contradictions in your worldview are fertile ground for bigotry. All the atheists in the crowd know this.

To evade the charge of bigotry, you need to do more than say that you sincerely believe that the Bible is against gay marriage. You need to explain why you take the clobber verses as something important and relevant to today, while the statements like “Let the man with two tunics share with him who has none,” aren’t.

There are arguments against taking the missional verses and the poverty verses and trying them to apply them today. Of course, many of those arguments could be turned against the clobber verses as well. Can it be shown that there is a consistent means of interpretation that would lead to the clobber verses being taken literally while the charity verses should be basically ignored?

Or think of it this way: would the hypothetical “man from Mars” who was innocent of Christianity and the culture wars really look at the Bible and come away saying, “Wow, we’ve really got to do something to stop gay marriage”?

Think about how this looks from the outside. The parts of the Bible that you believe apply today are the ones that require other people to make sacrifices. The parts of the Bible that would require YOU to make big sacrifices are not considered relevant. Look at it this way, and you’ll see why “bigot” is one of the nicer things you could be called.

Contradictions allow you to pick and choose which rules you follow, allowing you to benefit while others fall into harm. It also provides a great shield against criticism.

[59:06] MURRAY: Dick and I, our- our crime in the book was to have a single, solitary paragraph that said – after talking about the patterns that I’m about to describe – “if we’ve convinced you that either the environmental or the genetic explanation has won out to the exclusion of the other, we haven’t done a good enough job presenting the evidence for one side of the other. It seems to us highly likely that both genes and the environment have something to do with racial differences.” And we went no farther than that. There is an asymmetry between saying “probably genes have some involvement” and the assertion that it’s entirely environmental and that’s what the, that’s the assertion that is being made. If you’re going to be upset at “The Bell Curve,” you are obligated to defend the proposition that the black/white difference in IQ scores is 100% environmental, and that’s a very tough measure.

Hit Murray with the charge that he’s promoting genetic determinism, and he’ll point to that paragraph in “The Bell Curve” and say you’re straw-personing his views. Argue that intelligence is primarily driven by environment and he’ll either point to the hundreds of pages and dozens of charts that he says demonstrates a genetic link that’s much stronger than environment, or he’ll equivocate between “primarily driven by environment” and “100% environmental.” Nor is this an isolated incident. Remember his bit about “large numbers of young men are growing to adulthood without a male figure, you asked for and get chaos?”

[40:23] MURRAY: … the thing about the non-shared environment is it’s not susceptible to systematic manipulation. It’s … idiosyncratic. It’s non-systematic … there are no obvious ways that you can deal with the non-shared environment, in the way that you could say “Oh, we can improve the schools, we can teach better parenting practices, we can provide more money for – …” [those] all fall into the category of manipulating the shared environment and when it comes to personality, as you just indicated, it’s 50/50 [for genes and environment] but almost all that 50 is non-shared.

[41:02] HARRIS: Yeah, which seems to leave parents impressively off the hook for … how their kids turn out.

[41:10] MURRAY: Although it is true that parents – and I’m a father of four – uh, we resist that. … and with the non-shared environment and the small role left for parenting, I will say it flat out: I read [the research of Judith Rich Harris] with *the* most skeptical possible eye. I was looking for holes in it, assiduously. …

[41:57] MURRAY: … the book was very sound, it was very rigorously done, and … at this point I don’t know of anybody who’s familiar with literature, who thinks there’s that much of a role left of the kind of parents thought they had in shaping their children.

[42:15] HARRIS: Right, well I’m not gonna stop trying, I think, it’s [a] very hard illusion to cut through… as I read Harry Potter tonight to my eldest daughter.

[42:23] MURRAY: … You know that, but I think that it’s good to reflect on that: reading Harry Potter to your eldest daughter is a good in itself.

[42:32] HARRIS: Yeah.

[42:35] MURRAY: And the fact that she behaves differently 20 years from now is not the point.

[42:38] HARRIS: No, exactly, and it is an intrinsic good, and it’s for my own pleasure that I do it largely at this point.

Murray also thinks that nothing a parent will do will change their child’s development. His ability to flip between both sides of a contradiction is Olympic.

[43:12] HARRIS: That’s the one thing that it just occurred to me people should also understand is that, in addition to the fact that IQ doesn’t explain everything about a person’s success in life and … their intellectual abilities, the fact that a trait is genetically transmitted in individuals does not mean that all the differences between groups, or really even any of the differences between groups in that trait, are also genetic in origin, right?

[43:41] MURRAY: Critically important, critically important point.

[43:42] HARRIS: Yeah, so the jury can still be out on this topic, and we’ll talk about that, but to give a clear example: so if you have a population of people that is being systematically malnourished – now they might have genes to be as tall as the Dutch, but they won’t be because they’re not getting enough nourishment. And, in the case that they don’t become as tall as the Dutch, it will be entirely due to their environment and yet we know that height is among the most heritable things we’ve got – it’s also like 60 to 80 percent predicted by a person’s genes.

[44:15] MURRAY: Right. Uh, the comparison we use in the book … is that, you take a handful of genetically identical seed-corn, and divide it into two parts, and plant one of those parts in Iowa and the other part in the Mojave Desert, you’re going to get way different results. Has nothing whatsoever to do with the genetic content of the corn.

It’s no wonder that when Harris asks him if anything discovered since publication has changed his claims, his response was no. As he inhabits both side of a contradiction, nothing could falsify his views.

Contradictions are also a way to change your views without acknowledging you did. Consider this small bit of trivia Murray throws out (emphasis mine):

[1:40:53] HARRIS: If my life depended on it, I could not find another person [besides Christopher Hitchens] who smoked cigarettes in my contact list, you know, and let’s say there’s a thousand people in there, right?

[1:41:04] MURRAY:  Hmm mm-hmm.

[1:41:05] HARRIS: That’s an amazing fact in a society where something like 30% of people smoke cigarettes.

[1:41:12] MURRAY: That’s a wonderful illustration of how isolated [we are within our classes]… because, in my case, I do know people who smoke cigarettes but that’s only because I go play poker at Charleston West Virginia casino and there, about 30% of the guys I played poker with smoked. But that’s ok. In terms of [the] American Enterprise Institute, where I work, [I] don’t know anybody who smokes there, I don’t… social circles, no.

If you had a long memory, that small tidbit packs quite a punch.

Let’s begin by referring to the basic objectives of the program:

  1. To show that the basic social cost changes are bad economics.
  2. To illustrate how smoking benefits society and its members.
  3. To show that anti-smoking groups, who are promoting the social cost issue, have self-serving ends, and are not representative of the general society.

In short, we took as our goals a defense which would undermine the concepts of the social cost issue, and an offense which would stress the social benefits of smoking and freedom to smoke.

In 1980, the American Enterprise Institute was preparing reports and training videos that argued smoking is a net benefit to society. Among other things, worker productivity was better when people took regular smoke breaks, and restrictions on cigarettes harm personal liberty.

In 2017, the number of smokers at the American Enterprise Institute is far less than in the general population. If you value being free of contradictions, a reversal like this should cause you some tough introspection about who you allow into your think-tank. If you don’t, no introspection is necessary. There’s no need to criticize yourself, no need to submit yourself to annoying audits, you can just carry on being awesome.

Like Sam Harris. Emphasis mine.

[1:39] HARRIS: Human intelligence itself is a taboo topic; people don’t want to hear that intelligence is a real thing, and that some people have more of it than others. They don’t want to hear that IQ tests really measure it. They don’t want to hear that differences in IQ matter because they’re highly predictive of differential success in life, and not just for things like educational attainment and wealth, but for things like out-of-wedlock birth and mortality. People don’t want to hear that a person’s intelligence is in large measure due to his or her genes, and there seems to be very little we can do environmentally to increase a person’s intelligence, even in childhood. It’s not that the environment doesn’t matter, but genes appear to be 50 to 80 percent of the story. People don’t want to hear this, and they certainly don’t want to hear that average IQ differs across races and ethnic groups. Now, for better or worse, these are all facts.

[5:32] HARRIS: Whatever the difference in average IQ is across groups, you know nothing about a person’s intelligence on the basis of his or her skin color. That is just a fact. There is much more variance among individuals in any racial group than there is between groups.

If the mean IQs of people grouped by skin colour are different, then you must know something about a person’s intelligence by knowing their skin colour. Head over to R Psychologist’s illustration of Cohen’s d and keep a close eye on the “probability of superiority.” For instance, when d = 0.1, the fine print tells me “there is a 53 % chance that a person picked at random from the treatment group will have a higher score than a person picked at random from the control group (probability of superiority),” which means that if I encounter someone from group A I can state they have a higher intelligence than someone from group B with odds slightly better than chance. There’s only one situation where knowing someone’s skin colour tells me nothing about their intelligence, and that’s when the mean IQs of both groups are equal.

You could counter “so what, that 53% chance is so small as to be no different than 50/50,” and I’d agree with you. But if Murray demonstrated group differences of the same magnitude, his conclusion should not have been “IQ differs between races,” it should have been “IQ is effectively equal across racial lines.” By taking this counter, you’ve abandoned the ability to say mean IQ varies across groups. “Average IQ differs across races” and “skin colour conveys information about IQ” are equivalent statements, so Sam Harris is contradicting himself.

Contradictions are a chronic problem for him. It should come as no surprise that Sam Harris is always right, and that entire websites are wrong.

A few of the subjects I explore in my work have inspired an unusual amount of controversy. Some of this results from real differences of opinion or honest confusion, but much of it is due to the fact that certain of my detractors deliberately misrepresent my views. The purpose of this article is to address the most consequential of these distortions. […]

Whenever I respond to unscrupulous attacks on my work, I inevitably hear from hundreds of smart, supportive readers who say that I needn’t have bothered. In fact, many write to say that any response is counterproductive, because it only draws more attention to the original attack and sullies me by association. These readers think that I should be above caring about, or even noticing, treatment of this kind. Perhaps. I actually do take this line, sometimes for months or years, if for no other reason than that it allows me to get on with more interesting work. But there are now whole websites—Salon, The Guardian, Alternet, etc.—that seem to have made it a policy to maliciously distort my views.

Disagreement is due to misunderstanding, not genuine error. Ergo, he cannot be a bigot.

This, then, is a strong second reason to examine yourself for contradictions. Don’t just do it to stay in line with reality, do it to help rid yourself of bigotry against your fellow person.

Belling Sam Harris

I wrote off Sam Harris long ago, and currently ignore him as best as I can. Still, this seems worth the exception.

In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Charles Murray about the controversy over his book The Bell Curve, the validity and significance of IQ as a measure of intelligence, the problem of social stratification, the rise of Trump, universal basic income, and other topics.

For those unaware, Charles Murray co-wrote The Bell Curve, which carried this explosive claim among others:

There is a mean difference in black and white scores on mental tests, historically about one standard deviation in magnitude on IQ tests (IQ tests are normed so that the mean is 100 points and the standard deviation is 15). This difference is not the result of test bias, but reflects differences in cognitive functioning. The predictive validity of IQ scores for educational and socioeconomic outcomes is about the same for blacks and whites.

Alas, it was written with dubious sources, based on the notion that intelligence is genetically determined (I touch on the general case here), supported by dubious organizations, and even how it was published was designed to frustrate critics.

The Bell Curve was not circulated in galleys before publication. The effect was, first, to increase the allure of the book (There must be something really hot in there!), and second, to ensure that no one inclined to be skeptical would be able to weigh in at the moment of publication. The people who had galley proofs were handpicked by Murray and his publisher. The ordinary routine of neutral reviewers having a month or two to go over the book with care did not occur. Another handpicked group was flown to Washington at the expense of the American Enterprise Institute and given a weekend-long personal briefing on the book’s contents by Murray himself (Herrnstein had died very recently), just before publication. The result was what you’d expect: The first wave of publicity was either credulous or angry, but short on evidence, because nobody had had time to digest and evaluate the book carefully. [..]

The debate on publication day was conducted in the mass media by people with no independent ability to assess the book. Over the next few months, intellectuals took some pretty good shots at it in smaller publications like the New Republic and the New York Review of Books. It wasn’t until late 1995 that the most damaging criticism of The Bell Curve began to appear, in tiny academic journals.

Entire books have been written debunking The Bell Curve.

Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray argued that intelligence largely determined how well people did in life. The rich were rich mostly because they were smart, the poor were poor mostly because they were dumb, and middle Americans were middling mostly because they were of middling intelligence. This had long been so but was becoming even more so as new and inescapable economic forces such as global trade and technological development made intelligence more important than ever before. In a more open economy, people rose or sank to the levels largely fixed by their intelligence. Moreover, because intelligence is essentially innate, this expanding inequality cannot be stopped. It might be slowed by government meddling, but only by also doing injustice to the talented and damaging the national economy. Inequality is in these ways “natural,” inevitable, and probably desirable. [..]

Yet decades of social science research, and further research we will present here, dispute the claim that inequality is natural and increasing inequality is fated. Individual intelligence does not satisfactorily explain who ends up in which class; nor does it explain why people in different classes have such disparate standards of living.

So why was Sam Harris resurrecting this dead horse?

[9:35] HARRIS: The purpose of the podcast was to set the record straight, because I find the dishonesty and hypocrisy and moral cowardice of Murray’s critics shocking, and the fact that I was taken in by this defamation of him and effectively became part of a silent mob that was just watching what amounted to a modern witch-burning, that was intolerable to me. So it is with real pleasure (and some trepidation) that I bring you a very controversial conversation, on points about which there is virtually no scientific controversy. […]

[11:30] HARRIS: I’ve- since, in the intervening years, ventured into my own controversial areas as a speaker and writer and experienced many hysterical attacks against me in my work, and so I started thinking about your case a little – again without ever having read you – and I began to suspect that you were one of the canaries in the coal mine that I never recognized as such, and seeing your recent treatment at Middlebury, which many of our listeners will have heard about, where you were prevented from speaking and and your host was was physically attacked – I now believe that you are perhaps the intellectual who was treated most unfairly in my lifetime, and it’s, it’s just an amazing thing to be so slow to realize that. And at first I’d just like to apologize to you for having been so lazy and having been taken in to the degree that I was by the rumors and lies that have surrounded your work for the last 20 years, and so I just want to end- I want to thank you doubly for coming on the podcast to talk about these things.

Sigh.

Tell me, Robert Plomin, is intelligence hereditary?

Genes make a substantial difference, but they are not the whole story. They account for about half of all differences in intelligence among people, so half is not caused by genetic differences, which provides strong support for the importance of environmental factors. This estimate of 50 percent reflects the results of twin, adoption and DNA studies.

It’s deja-vu all over again; there are good reason to think twin studies overstate inheritance, and adoption studies are not as environmentally pure as they’re thought to be. As for DNA studies,

The literature on candidate gene associations is full of reports that have not stood up to rigorous replication. This is the case both for straightforward main effects and for candidate gene-by-environment interactions (Duncan and Keller 2011). As a result, the psychiatric and behavior genetics literature has become confusing and it now seems likely that many of the published findings of the last decade are wrong or misleading and have not contributed to real advances in knowledge. The reasons for this are complex, but include the likelihood that effect sizes of individual polymorphisms are small, that studies have therefore been underpowered, and that multiple hypotheses and methods of analysis have been explored; these conditions will result in an unacceptably high proportion of false findings (Ioannidis 2005).[1]

Ah yes, the replication crisis. I know it well. Genetic studies can easily have millions of datapoints yet only draw from less than a few hundred volunteers, and are particularly ripe for false correlations. But according to Angry White Men, Sam Harris was ignorant of all of the above.

Harris didn’t bat an eye when Murray accused critics of race realism — or human biodiversity, or whatever the alt-right calls its racist junk science nowadays — of elitism and compared them to modern-day flat Earthers. As Murray put it: “But at this point, Sam, it’s almost as if we are in the opposite position of conventional wisdom versus elite wisdom that we were, say, when Columbus was gonna sail to America. … It’s the elites who are under the impression that, oh, IQ tests only measure what IQ tests measure, and nobody really is able to define intelligence, and this and that, they’re culturally biased, on and on and on and on. And all of these things are the equivalent of saying the Earth is flat.

By now, I’m convinced he doesn’t want to hear the counter-arguments. He’d rather pretend to be rational and scientific, because then he can remain bigoted without fear of challenge.


[1] Hewitt, John K. “Editorial Policy on Candidate Gene Association and Candidate Gene-by-Environment Interaction Studies of Complex Traits.” Behavior Genetics 42, no. 1 (January 1, 2012): 1–2. doi:10.1007/s10519-011-9504-z.

Saving the World, One Silly Dance at a Time

I think I get Bill Nye’s plan.

Currently he’s caping around Netflix, promising to “save the world.” One of the two episodes I watched was on nutrition, and it was unceasingly awful. Over and over again, he hammered home the point that fad diets were useless: problem is, he didn’t explain why. He didn’t bring up the shady practices and lousy science, he didn’t give a lecture on human physiology; he did burn food with a blowtorch, interview a cave person, and host a deliberately awkward school play over nutrition. His “expert panel” consisted of a comedian, a personal trainer, and a psychologist. As someone who prefers the process and facts, I was left deeply unsatisfied. How exactly was this saving the world?

In this paper, we report the results of two rounds of experiments investigating the extent to which corrective information embedded in realistic news reports succeeds in reducing prominent misperceptions about contemporary politics. In each of the four experiments, which were conducted in fall 2005 and spring 2006, ideological subgroups failed to update their beliefs when presented with corrective information that runs counter to their predispositions. Indeed, in several cases, we find that corrections actually strengthened misperceptions among the most strongly committed subjects.[1]

Enter the Backfire Effect. I’m not yet convinced it exists, thanks to the current replication crisis, but I do know it is widely believed in the skeptic circles Nye is familiar with. Let’s say it does exist; how then do we dispel myths?

A common explanation for the Backfire Effect is competing arguments.[2] The idea is that when someone hears a refutation of a myth they hold dear, they work hard to swat it down. In doing so, they bring up their prior knowledge and remind themselves of its strength. Weighing the (supposedly) defused refutation and the (supposedly) iron-clad evidence for the myth in their minds, people chalk in more evidence in favor of the myth. In hindsight, they’ll remember the evidence in favor of the myth rather than the evidence opposed.

If true, then one approach is to avoid bringing evidence against the myth, as that will cause people to work less to refute it and thus dredge up less counter-argument. Never bring up evidence in favor of it either, as you’ll remind people it exists. In fact, why bring up evidence at all when you can use peer pressure and mockery to exploit our social tendencies? Another two approaches are repetition and entertainment; make sure people remember your talking points, instead of the evidence against them.

Bill Nye did all of that.

He’s not trying to engage people like me, who already know fad diets are bogus, he’s trying to convince the people who think fad diets are legit. By tackling the harder problem he is indeed trying to save the world, by carefully refuting the myths people hold. This is not science or the discovery of novel truths, it’s the spread of those truths to the masses and the battle against misinformation.

Alas, some people didn’t get the memo. Like Jerry Coyne.

It’s no secret that I am not a big fan of Bill Nye, regarding him as a buffoon who will engage in any shenanigans that keep him in the public eye and help him retain the fame he desires—fame accrued as “The Science Guy”.

Spoken like someone who’s never read Bill Nye’s CV. I’m sure the current CEO of The Planetary Society, who’s designed sundials for Mars landers and took Obama to the Florida Everglades to discuss climate change and education, is consumed by a need for fame.

Well, Nye has a new show humbly called “Bill Nye Saves the World“, which apparently still has the goal of promoting science. Here’s a new video from the show. Featuring comedian and actor Rachel Bloom singing “My vagina has its own voice,” it’s an arrant travesty.

Or a memorable way to drive home the point that how you have sex doesn’t matter, nor what body parts you use or how they’re shaped. One that will be shared far and wide by people who argue the contrary, who seem genuinely frightened of what Nye is saying.

Now this may be social justice stuff, but it ain’t science …

Social justice is the promotion of a fair and just society. It is universal health care, progressive taxation, international trade policy, and discounted tuition. It is eliminating discrimination based on sex or race. If you consider mass misinformation as a social injustice, then yes, educating people on the best science is a form of social justice, but that’s a more tenuous form than guaranteed minimum income programs.

And yes, studying sex is science. Coyne himself agrees on this.

I think the size dimorphism of humans is more likely a result of male “battling” for dominance and access to females than simply female preference for large males, though of course both factors can be involved. […]

I also adduced four other bits of evidence predicted by the sexual selection hypothesis, which you can see at my earlier post. Those predictions were made before the data were collected, and they were confirmed.

That’s got all the basic trappings of science: hypotheses, evidence, and a methodology for combining the two. Next, we have to establish if the scientific consensus is that sex is a spectrum instead of a binary.

The idea of two sexes is simplistic. Biologists now think there is a wider spectrum than that. […]

Since the 1990s, researchers have identified more than 25 genes involved in DSDs [differences of sex development], and next-generation DNA sequencing in the past few years has uncovered a wide range of variations in these genes that have mild effects on individuals, rather than causing DSDs. “Biologically, it’s a spectrum,” says [Eric] Vilain, [a clinician and the director of the Center for Gender-Based Biology at the University of California, Los Angeles].[3]

The influence of the XX/XY model of chromosomal sex has been profound over the last century, but it’s founded on faulty premises and responsible for encouraging reductive, essentialist thinking. While the scientific world has moved on, its popular appeal remains.[4]

Sex determination exists on a spectrum, with genitals, chromosomes, gonads, and hormones all playing a role. Most fit into the male or female category, but about one in a hundred may fall in between.[5]

Easy peasy. Even Adam Savage is aware that science promotes a sex spectrum. But Coyne offers up a weak counter-argument against the scientific consensus.

… not even if you construe it as promoting a “spectrum of sexuality,” which is misleading because most people bunch at either end of the “spectrum.”

Riiiiiiight, so we should ditch the idea of a spectrum because people don’t fall along it in a uniform fashion. Does this mean I can declare all prime numbers to be odd? Most of them are, after all. Or maybe we should dispense with the visual spectrum, since our eyes tend to lump colours into discrete categories?

As always, I wonder what Coyne thinks of people who don’t fall into the binary. Are they “defects” in need of “correction?” Should we trim the clitoris of a newborn baby if it is longer than we feel comfortable with? Should a baby with a micropenis have it lengthened? I know Coyne is vocal over the mutilation of genitals for religious reasons, so I’m curious if he’s fine with “correcting” them for social ones.

On April 18, 2006, when M was 16 months old, Dr. Ian Aaronson operated on him at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC). He reduced M’s penis to look more like a clitoris, cut up his scrotum to form labia, and removed his internal testicle tissue. Two other specialists also treated M: Dr. Yaw Appiagyei-Dankah, who worked at MUSC, and Dr. James Amrhein from Greenville Hospital.

In a letter to M’s pediatrician, Dr. Amrhein wrote that initially, M’s condition was “confusing.” He had been identified as a boy at birth because of his “rather large” penis. Routine blood tests showed his testosterone levels were extremely elevated. However, he had a small vaginal opening beneath his penis and both ovarian and testicular tissue. “Surgical correction” was necessary, the doctors noted in medical records. [6]

Let’s do the math: roughly 1 in 2,000 children are born with an ambiguous sex. Surgical “correction” has been a common response since the 1950’s. Between 1960 and 2009, about 175 million Americans were born. If all those figures are accurate, roughly 87,000 Americans had their genitals “corrected” by doctors to fit into the binary.

Now, we have no way of getting accurate numbers here. No-one tracks the number of intersex children born (how can we, when we can’t even define “intersex?”), doctors rarely if ever publicly discussed the practice (so as to preserve the social taboo), and they usually told parents to never discuss these surgeries with their kids (and sometimes never informed the parents at all). But even with the fuzzy math it’s obvious that our society’s binary view of sex carries a terrible cost.

Try telling that to Coyne, though.

I’m not sure what this is doing on a science show. It’s not even funny, […]

Defend this travesty if you want, but I’ll never admit it promotes anything but ideology.

The irony is that Coyne is fine with the science of sex within the context of Evolutionary Psychology, he’s fine with social justice when it comes to separation of church and state, and he’s fine with eliminating unnecessary surgeries prompted by religion. Shift the context slightly and suddenly these topics are “ideologies” that he can safely ignore, even if the variations are well grounded in science and of benefit to everyone.

Lighten up, Coyne, and try talking to a vagina. You might learn something from the experience.


[1] Nyhan, Brendan, and Jason Reifler. “When corrections fail: The persistence of political misperceptions.” Political Behavior 32.2 (2010): 303-330.

[2] Trevors, Gregory J., et al. “Identity and epistemic emotions during knowledge revision: A potential account for the backfire effect.” Discourse Processes 53.5-6 (2016): 339-370.
[3] Ainsworth, Claire. “Sex Redefined.” Nature 518, no. 7539 (February 18, 2015): 288–91. doi:10.1038/518288a.
[4] Ian Steadman. “Sex Isn’t Chromosomes: The Story of a Century of Misconceptions about X & Y.” New Statesman, February 23, 2015.
[5] http://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2017/01/how-science-helps-us-understand-gender-identity/

I Sure Hope Not

Neo-Nazis The Alt-Right seem to be on the ascendency in North America, so it’s time to get to know them.

With its angry, anti-liberal, race-obsessed, occasionally apocalyptic tone, the Rebel resembles Breitbart, the conservative American website once run by Stephen Bannon, who is now Donald Trump’s chief strategist (a typical headline: “Idaho Dems Exec Director: DNC Should Train People ‘How to Shut Their Mouths If They’re White’”). That’s no coincidence: [Erza] Levant said during the cruise that Breitbart was a major inspiration for the Rebel. Which is exactly why I spent a week of my life rubbing elbows with Levant’s most dedicated followers. Bannon’s acolytes, too, once were mocked and ridiculed as marginal loons—until they got their man into the White House. Could Levant manage the same trick here in Canada?

It might also serve as a wake-up call for those who say it can’t happen up here. What would they say to this?

How does an ordinary Canadian become a Rebel? During my week at sea, I began to classify Rebels according to the issues that made them angriest—the ones that had originally brought them into Levant’s orbit. Fear of Islam and a distrust of mainstream climate-change science were the most prevalent. Rebels might start out as temperate conservatives, centrists, or even leftists (Faith Goldy said that her conservatism had emerged from the ashes of a youthful hard-left zeal). But at some point, a gateway issue draws them in. […]

Finding scant support for his views in the mainstream media, the nascent Rebel turns to Google, where his search for truth might lead to one of the many clickbait videos posted on Levant’s web site. (The Rebel has racked up more than six million YouTube views per month since its launch in early 2015. No one writes a headline like Levant.) Driven by a convert’s zeal, the newly minted Rebel becomes not only a steady consumer of Rebel content but also a publisher—spamming his friends with the stuff on Twitter and Facebook.

One Rebel I met, a middle-aged oil-patch worker from northern Alberta, described his daily media consumption as follows: First he goes to Breitbart for news, then the Rebel for “analysis,” then his local Sun newspaper “for entertainment.” Time permitting, he’ll move on to the Globe and Mail or the Toronto Star or the CBC—but only if he isn’t already “angry enough.” (That last bit was said partly in jest, but the rest was in earnest.) I met members of two families for whom Rebel consumption is a daily bonding ritual: One retired couple keeps the laptop open on the breakfast table every morning, with Rebel videos turned up loud. One mother watches Rebel videos every night with her teenaged daughters.

That’s textbook radicalization, in this case disguised as a luxury cruise. It makes for a helluva story.