How to force-fit preconceptions about gender into science

I mentioned this persistent idea that male variability explains their “superior” intellectual abilities in my last post. There’s another example of the prevalence of this odd, unsupported idea going around — a twice-retracted paper that purports to find a mathematical basis for a sex difference.

The variability hypothesis generally states that the males of a species vary more widely in physical and physiological traits than the females. This theory is controversial because, since the beginning of the 20th century, it has mostly been used to refer to cognitive abilities—the purported greater frequency of both lower and higher extremes in intelligence among human males compared with females.

As Penn State University professor of psychology and women’s studies Stephanie Shields covered in her 1982 historical review (and in a follow-up 2016 review), scientists in the early 1900s asserted that there was a difference in the variability of mental traits between the sexes and attributed this difference to genetics, not considering environment and societal factors.

Again, I don’t find the idea credible at all. It’s entirely based on wishful thinking and a strange idea that nature is fair, and tries to support it with an unsupported belief that all biases must be symmetrically distributed. This paper was rejected for more specific, detailed problems, though.

The major flaw in the paper, according to Mark Kirkpatrick, a mathematical geneticist at the University of Texas at Austin who has published models of the evolution of mating preferences and selected traits, is that the rules of inheritance are not taken into account. “The paper’s conclusions are simply wrong,” he says. “The genes of the successful individuals in a population are transmitted to the offspring and [Hill’s] model does not have any equation that links up the genes of one generation with the genes of the next generation.”

Reed Cartwright, a computational evolutionary geneticist at Arizona State University, agrees. “My primary issue with Hill’s model is that it lacks any notion of genetics, and you cannot ignore genetics and make evolutionary conclusions,” Cartwright writes in an email to The Scientist. The model also ignores the role of gene-environment interactions, which are particularly important for complex traits, according to Cartwright. “Hill did not appreciate that if the difference between his two populations of males was due to environment and not genes, then his conclusions would be invalid.”

Yeah, if you invent an evolutionary model that handwaves away that awkward necessity of a mechanism of inheritance, you’re going to find that biologists are unimpressed. It reminds me of the time I attended a lecture by a mathematician/computer scientist on epidemiology, and she had tested her hypothesis with a simulation of viruses that she started by explaining that her model was the first one that used male and female viruses. Nope nope nope nope.


  1. lakitha tolbert says

    So according to this fool’s philosophy, Black people are dumber than White people but we make up for that with the ability to play basketball, and dance really well.
    Women are stupider than men but we make up for it with the ability to knit socks, cook, and speak baby talk.

  2. says

    I read the paper; it’s a mess. To the extent that it proves anything, it proves a triviality.

    The main author is a bit of a hack (his arxiv entries are not particularly impressive). The other senior author does seem to be an accomplished mathematician, which makes it bizarre he felt okay to endorse this manuscript in the initial submission.

    Finally, there was a student involved, and I feel not enough has been discussed about coercing this students time to further some quixotic project of a resentful mediocrity.

  3. thirdmill301 says

    Lakitha, suppose, just for sake of argument, that black people as a group are dumber than white people but you make up for it with the ability to play basketball and dance really well. I don’t see how that argument, even if true, helps the racists all that much. When an individual black comes along with a high IQ, or an individual white comes along who can play basketball and dance really well, should they not be treated as individuals? Should not every person be encouraged to do what they are good at, whether it happens to match what others with the same melanin content are also good at or not?

    So suppose one of these studies purporting to show that whites are superior to blacks actually did turn out to be valid. So what? Individuals still have the right to be judged based on their own performance, not on which group they get pigeonholed into.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    What about the underlying supposition that males generally show more variation than females (i.e., have a wider bell curve on most traits)?

    Leaving aside the amorphous issue of intelligence – hell, let’s leave aside the human species entirely – does even this part of the hypothesis hold up to actual measurement?

  5. chrislawson says

    …the rules of inheritance are not taken into account…

    I have a revolutionary quantum theory that works much better by ignoring interactions.

  6. chrislawson says

    Pierce R. Butler@4–

    High male variability as an explanation for higher IQ is a zombie myth. It was first killed by Leta Hollingworth’s research way back in the 1920s and 30s — even back then she was calling the idea “armchair dogma.”

    Every study ever since has shown either no difference, or such a small difference in variability as to be meaningless. And obviously none of them have shown a genetic basis for any differences.

    The only recent work that claimed to show increased variability was a stunningly stupid “study” from the Heterodox Institute using a methodology that would get them laughed out of any respectable science department, and which ends with “Damore was drawing attention to empirical findings that seem to have been previously unknown or ignored at Google, and which might be helpful to the company as it tries to improve its diversity policies and outcomes.” Followed by a whole bunch of self-congratulatory sexist comments from engineers showing exactly why women avoid the field.

  7. chris says

    I used to “love” explaining what I did at work to the guys working near me. We were all structural engineers. They worked on static loads, I worked on dynamic loads (especially random vibration).

    I could explain that this was because they had not taken the specific classes in vibration and advanced engineering mathematics. But then again, I decided to switch from the mechanical engineering department to the aero/astro department because the former just had you memorize the common procedures, whereas the latter derived the equations. It was not a coincidence that the applied math department was in the same building. I just liked being able to know about the math I am using, and I hate rote memorization.

    Plus calculus and differential equations are fun! That is not sarcasm, I actually like plowing through equations. I read math books for fun, especially the history of math and those Paul Nahin.

    I have my limitations. I am frustrated when I cannot use the square root of negative one (I dropped real analysis), and for some reason I just don’t get probabilities. Statistics I get, that includes actual data… but probability is a puzzle. Fortunately my younger son loves probability. He has a BA in math (teaching track) with a minor in applied math. He was all set to graduate in June, except the math department told him some of his applied math credits did not qualify. The guy was actually happy for the opportunity to take more probability. Which is why he had to graduate in August, and apparently got a job in less than a month later with an “adult” salary instead getting a masters in education.

    There must be something in the genetics. Speaking of which, it was my mother who explained different number systems (binary, decimal, hexadecimal) to me when I was in fourth grade. She was the only child of an accountant. My dad had to switch from majoring in physics (which was the “in” major right after WWII) to French because he simply did not understand why he could use “only” significant digits. Error bars were foreign to him. I gave up trying to explain how the logarithmic scale works for earthquakes and decibels in sound.

    But intelligence is fractured. My dad is great at languages, he speaks several. My youngest actually has a degree in linguistics, they both absorb languages. Something I simply cannot do.

    Long story short: I hate studies by fools who try to cram our oddly shaped pegs into their pre-conceived holes.

  8. jamiejag says

    I’d think the cultural/historical practice of refusing to educate women to the extent of their abilities and the refusal of the patriarchy to acknowledge their accomplishments has a lot to do with any mistaken concept that they’re less intelligent and/or exhibit less variability in “IQ.”

  9. ikanreed says

    Why is it you’re always embroiled in the same stupid arguments I find myself in elsewhere?

    I have had to fight tooth and nail to remove a single sentence on rationalwiki asserting the Greater Variability Hypothesis as accurate about IQ; a sentence that cited a paper using fucking Auto Shop Knowledge as a proxy measure for intelligence. And the damn near megabyte of argumentation that one change produced from one person leaves me so fatigued.