Two Opposing Camps


Alas, we hit another depressing milestone a few days ago: “A new Pentagon policy that effectively bans transgender people from joining the US military and serving in their preferred gender has come into effect.” If you’re wondering what happened to all those court cases, they’re still ongoing; lower courts had issued injunctions preventing the Pentagon from putting the policy into place until the legality was settled, the Department of Justice appealed those injunctions, lost, and kept appealing right to the Supreme Court. The DoJ wanted the Supremes to short-circuit judicial process and immediately take over the case, which they sensibly refused, but the conservative judges voted to stay the injunction. The Pentagon was thus free to effectively ban transgender soldiers while the courts figured out if they legally could.

Yeah, I don’t understand that last bit either.

The ban has revealed two different camps on the issue. The American Medical Association has repeatedly said transgender soldiers should be allowed to serve, but they’re merely the medical experts. What about people with direct military experience? Let’s see what a Republican with a record of military service had to say at a hearing on the ban. [Read more…]

Sexism Poisons Everything

That black hole image was something, wasn’t it? For a few days, we all managed to forget the train wreck that is modern politics and celebrate science in its purest form. Alas, for some people there was one problem with M87’s black hole.

Dr. Katie Bouman, in front of a stack of hard drives.

A woman was involved! Despite the evidence that Dr. Bouman played a crucial role or had the expertise, they instead decided Andrew Chael had done all the work and she was faking it.

So apparently some (I hope very few) people online are using the fact that I am the primary developer of the eht-imaging software library () to launch awful and sexist attacks on my colleague and friend Katie Bouman. Stop.

Our papers used three independent imaging software libraries (…). While I wrote much of the code for one of these pipelines, Katie was a huge contributor to the software; it would have never worked without her contributions and

the work of many others who wrote code, debugged, and figured out how to use the code on challenging EHT data. With a few others, Katie also developed the imaging framework that rigorously tested all three codes and shaped the entire paper ();

as a result, this is probably the most vetted image in the history of radio interferometry. I’m thrilled Katie is getting recognition for her work and that she’s inspiring people as an example of women’s leadership in STEM. I’m also thrilled she’s pointing

out that this was a team effort including contributions from many junior scientists, including many women junior scientists (). Together, we all make each other’s work better; the number of commits doesn’t tell the full story of who was indispensable.

Amusingly, their attempt to beat back social justice within the sciences kinda backfired.

As openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, and other gender/sexual minority (LGBTQIA+) members of the astronomical community, we strongly believe that there is no place for discrimination based on sexual orientation/preference or gender identity/expression. We want to actively maintain and promote a safe, accepting and supportive environment in all our work places. We invite other LGBTQIA+ members of the astronomical community to join us in being visible and to reach out to those who still feel that it is not yet safe for them to be public.

As experts, TAs, instructors, professors and technical staff, we serve as professional role models every day. Let us also become positive examples of members of the LGBTQIA+ community at large.

We also invite everyone in our community, regardless how you identify yourself, to become an ally and make visible your acceptance of LGBTQIA+ people. We urge you to make visible (and audible) your objections to derogatory comments and “jokes” about LGBTQIA+ people.

In the light of the above statements, we, your fellow students, alumni/ae, faculty, coworkers, and friends, sign this message.

Andrew Chael, Graduate Student, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Yep, the poster boy for those anti-SJWs is an SJW himself!

So while I appreciate the congratulations on a result that I worked hard on for years, if you are congratulating me because you have a sexist vendetta against Katie, please go away and reconsider your priorities in life. Otherwise, stick around — I hope to start tweeting

more about black holes and other subjects I am passionate about — including space, being a gay astronomer, Ursula K. Le Guin, architecture, and musicals. Thanks for following me, and let me know if you have any questions about the EHT!

If you want a simple reason why I spend far more time talking about sexism than religion, this is it. What has done more harm to the world, religion or sexism? Which of the two depends most heavily on poor arguments and evidence? While religion can do good things once in a while, sexism is prevented from that by definition.

Nevermind religion, sexism poisons everything.

… Whoops, I should probably read Pharyngula more often. Ah well, my rant at the end was still worth the effort.

Ugh, Not Again

P-values are back in the news. Nature published an article, signed by 800 scientists, calling for an end to the concept of “statistical significance.” It ruffled my feathers, even though I agreed with its central thesis.

The trouble is human and cognitive more than it is statistical: bucketing results into ‘statistically significant’ and ‘statistically non-significant’ makes people think that the items assigned in that way are categorically different. The same problems are likely to arise under any proposed statistical alternative that involves dichotomization, whether frequentist, Bayesian or otherwise.

Unfortunately, the false belief that crossing the threshold of statistical significance is enough to show that a result is ‘real’ has led scientists and journal editors to privilege such results, thereby distorting the literature. Statistically significant estimates are biased upwards in magnitude and potentially to a large degree, whereas statistically non-significant estimates are biased downwards in magnitude. Consequently, any discussion that focuses on estimates chosen for their significance will be biased. On top of this, the rigid focus on statistical significance encourages researchers to choose data and methods that yield statistical significance for some desired (or simply publishable) result, or that yield statistical non-significance for an undesired result, such as potential side effects of drugs — thereby invalidating conclusions.

Nothing wrong there. While I’ve mentioned some Bayesian buckets, I tucked away a one-sentence counter-argument in an aside over here. Any artificial significant/non-significant boundary is going to promote the distortions they mention here. What got me writing this post was their recommendations.

What will retiring statistical significance look like? We hope that methods sections and data tabulation will be more detailed and nuanced. Authors will emphasize their estimates and the uncertainty in them — for example, by explicitly discussing the lower and upper limits of their intervals. They will not rely on significance tests. When P values are reported, they will be given with sensible precision (for example, P = 0.021 or P = 0.13) — without adornments such as stars or letters to denote statistical significance and not as binary inequalities (P  < 0.05 or P > 0.05). Decisions to interpret or to publish results will not be based on statistical thresholds. People will spend less time with statistical software, and more time thinking.

This basically amounts to nothing. Journal editors still have to decide what to print, and if there is no strong alternative they’ll switch from an arbitrary cutoff of p < 0.05 to an ad-hoc arbitrary cutoff. In the meantime, they’re leaving flawed statistical procedures in place. P-values exaggerate the strength of the evidence, as I and others have argued. Confidence intervals are not an improvement, either. As I put it:

For one thing, if you’re a frequentist it’s a category error to state the odds of a hypothesis being true, or that some data makes a hypothesis more likely, or even that you’re testing the truth-hood of a hypothesis. […]

How does this intersect with confidence intervals? If it’s an invalid move to hypothesise[sic] “the population mean is Y,” it must also be invalid to say “there’s a 95% chance the population mean is between X and Z.” That’s attaching a probability to a hypothesis, and therefore a no-no! Instead, what a frequentist confidence interval is really telling you is “assuming this data is a representative sample, if I repeat my experimental procedure an infinite number of times then I’ll calculate a sample mean between X and Z 95% of the time.” A confidence interval says nothing about the test statistic, at least not directly.

In frequentism, the parameter is fixed and the data varies. It doesn’t make sense to consider other parameters, that’s a Bayesian move. And yet the authors propose exactly that!

We must learn to embrace uncertainty. One practical way to do so is to rename confidence intervals as ‘compatibility intervals’ and interpret them in a way that avoids overconfidence. Specifically, we recommend that authors describe the practical implications of all values inside the interval, especially the observed effect (or point estimate) and the limits. In doing so, they should remember that all the values between the interval’s limits are reasonably compatible with the data, given the statistical assumptions used to compute the interval. Therefore, singling out one particular value (such as the null value) in the interval as ‘shown’ makes no sense.

Much of what the authors proposed would be fixed by switching to Bayesian statistics. Their own suggestions invoke Bayesian ideas without realizing it. Yet they go out of their way to say nothing’s wrong with p-values or confidence intervals, despite evidence to the contrary. Their proposal is destined to fail, yet it got more support than the arguably-superior p < 0.005 proposal.

Maddening. Maybe it’s time I got out my poison pen and added my two cents to the scientific record.

Happy Emmy Noether Day!

Whenever anyone asks me for my favorite scientist, her name comes first.

At a time when women were considered intellectually inferior to men, Noether (pronounced NUR-ter) won the admiration of her male colleagues. She resolved a nagging puzzle in Albert Einstein’s newfound theory of gravity, the general theory of relativity. And in the process, she proved a revolutionary mathematical theorem that changed the way physicists study the universe.

It’s been a century since the July 23, 1918, unveiling of Noether’s famous theorem. Yet its importance persists today. “That theorem has been a guiding star to 20th and 21st century physics,” says theoretical physicist Frank Wilczek of MIT. […]

Although most people have never heard of Noether, physicists sing her theorem’s praises. The theorem is “pervasive in everything we do,” says theoretical physicist Ruth Gregory of Durham University in England. Gregory, who has lectured on the importance of Noether’s work, studies gravity, a field in which Noether’s legacy looms large.

And as luck would have it, today was the day she was born. So read up on why she’s such a critical figure, and use it as an excuse to remember other important women in science.

Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria

Remember that old thing? No? OK, quick summary:

Parental reports (on social media) of friend clusters exhibiting signs of gender dysphoria and increased exposure to social media/internet preceding a child’s announcement of a transgender identity raise the possibility of social and peer influences.

Littman L (2018) Parent reports of adolescents and young adults perceived to show signs of a rapid onset of gender dysphoria. PLoS ONE 13(8): e0202330.

In short, maybe social media is making the kids transgender? This seems like something someone should study, and someone did!

Poorly. [Read more…]

And Then There Were Four

Now a fourth woman has told BuzzFeed News her experience of sexual harassment from Tyson. In January 2010, she recalled, she joined her then-boyfriend at a holiday party for employees of the American Museum of Natural History. Tyson, its most famous employee, drunkenly approached her, she said, making sexual jokes and propositioning her to join him alone in his office. In a 2014 email shared with BuzzFeed News, she described the incident to her own employer in order to shoot down a proposed collaboration with Tyson.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Our culture does its best to silence the victims of sexual assault and harassment, while protecting those who engage in it, so victims rarely come forward. When someone is willing to stick their neck out, however, other victims realize the strength in numbers and join them with their own tales. Sometimes, this leads to a measure of justice; sometimes, not. Whatever the case, the culture of silence makes this avalanche look like a conspiracy or panic; how can so many people be victims, and why are they coming forward now?

For years, Amet had been trying to make the world listen to her account of a powerful man who had once assaulted her and derailed her life. Mainstream publications, including BuzzFeed News, were unable to adequately corroborate the events from so long ago, and did not publish her allegations. And internet commenters assailed her character and New Age lifestyle. Her claims may have stayed buried forever, if not for the women who saw in Amet’s story a shadow of their own.

“I saw that her credibility was being questioned in a way that honestly had a lot of racist and sexist and anti-religious undertones,” [another accuser] said. “I kinda figured if I had any credibility to lend to that so that she’s taken more seriously, I should do that.”

When you look at the science behind sexual assault and harassment, and rationally weigh it, neither question is a mystery. It is exactly what you’d predict would happen if “rape culture” existed.

And it suggests there may soon be five.

A Quick Note on Neil deGrasse Tyson

Sorry for going silent, I’m neck-deep in a paper at the moment. But the reports and news about Neil deGrasse Tyson have kicked up a discussion of sexual assault in my social circles. I’ve been here before; I spent months researching the literature on sexual assault, and delivered a lecture on the topic. I went gonzo with my citations, as I figured most people would be critical of my take. Between that and “A Statistical Analysis of a Sexual Assault Case,” there isn’t much else I can add. You wondering why allegations of sexual misconduct have anything to do with allegations of sexual assault, for instance? I touched on that in EvFem2.

A third reason may be that the cognitive tools used to justify one form of bigotry are similar to those used to justify others. A meta-analysis by Suarez and Gadalla found a strong correlation between belief in rape myths and belief in myths about age, class, race, and religion.[148]

[148] Suarez, E., and T. M. Gadalla. “Stop Blaming the Victim: A Meta-Analysis on Rape Myths.” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 25, no. 11 (November 1, 2010): 2010–35. doi:10.1177/0886260509354503.

Bigotry is intersectional, and it’s great to see more people recognizing that. This also predicts that endorsement of benevolent sexism and sexual assault would be correlated, and sure enough it is.

Consistent with previous research, men were more accepting of rape myths against both male and female victims. Past literature on female rape myths has argued that men are more accepting of female rape myths because of adversarial, antiwoman attitudes (e.g., Lonsway & Fitzgerald, 1995). If hostility toward women is the only contributing ideology, we would expect that men would endorse female rape myths to a greater extent than they endorse male rape myths. However, men’s acceptance of rape myths did not significantly differ based on the gender of the victim. Women’s acceptance of rape myths also did not vary based on the gender of the victim. This supports Struckman-Johnson and Struckman-Johnson’s (1992) conclusion that men are more accepting of rape myths in general, not just against female victims.

In exploring the ideologies associated with each of the rape myths, we find that benevolent sexism toward men is associated with male rape myths. This is consistent with the research that benevolent sexism toward women is associated with blaming female victims of acquaintance rape (Abrams et al., 2003; Chapleau et al., 2007; Viki et al., 2004). Viki et al. (2004) concluded that benevolent sexism is associated with victim blaming to protect one’s belief in a just world.

Chapleau, Kristine M., Debra L. Oswald, and Brenda L. Russell. “Male Rape Myths: The Role of Gender, Violence, and Sexism.” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 23, no. 5 (May 2008): 600–615.

If we have evidence someone is acting creepy towards women, then, that raises the odds of them having committed sexual assault. Combine this with the rape apologetics a lot of men engage in …

… a study by Edwards, Bradshaw, and Hinsz found two different groups of people at risk to rape.[147] One sixth of the men in their sample had a genuine hatred of women, and openly admitted they would rape if they thought they could get away with it. But another sixth of their sample said they’d never rape a woman, though they’d consider forcing someone to have sex against their will. This group employed all sorts of apologetics to convince themselves that this wasn’t rape, and some went further to actually justify I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-rape as a good thing, an achievement to be unlocked and celebrated.

[147] Edwards, Sarah R., Kathryn A. Bradshaw, and Verlin B. Hinsz. “Denying Rape but Endorsing Forceful Intercourse: Exploring Differences Among Responders.” Violence and Gender 1, no. 4 (2014): 188–93.

… plus add in Tyson’s background as an athlete, when we’ve got evidence that athletes are more prone to commit sexual assault than the general public, and I considered it more likely than not that Tyson committed sexual assault even when I could count the number of accusers on one finger.

Hemant Metha has a different take.

This is an awkward thing for me to even mention because 1) I don’t want to believe it (not that my feelings matters), 2) my colleague on Patheos and this very site, David McAfee, is the person who’s been reporting this story from the very beginning and all of the articles coming out now stem from his posts, and 3) I’ve been reading his posts about the topic and still haven’t figured out what to make of it all.

My hesitation mostly stems from the fact that it’s a fellow blogger doing the investigation, rather than some media outlet with experienced editors overseeing the journalism, a track record for covering these topics, and reporters who know how to corroborate all the information.

Consider the priors, Metha, don’t ignore them because of your feelings or who is investigating the situation. That’s not being a good skeptic.

HJH 2018-12-02: PZ Myers seems to have been swayed by Tyson’s statement. I had to pop by with a comment, which is worth reproducing here with a minor edit.

Nah, I gotta disagree with you PZ. Tyson just admitted to having poor respect for people’s boundaries, and his account of the 1980’s incident is a lot like a lot of the deflection I’ve seen from people who would never dare rape someone but would be open to forcing someone to have sex with them against their will. He also twice tries to poison the well [three times], by going after the credibility of the accuser…

For me, what was most significant, was that in this new life, long after dropping out of astrophysics graduate school, she was posting videos of colored tuning forks endowed with vibrational therapeutic energy that she channels from the orbiting planets. As a scientist, I found this odd.

… implies it was a false memory, when we know traumatic memories don’t work that way, and tries to shoot the messenger:

I note that this allegation was used as a kind of solicitation-bait by at least one journalist to bring out of the woodwork anybody who had any encounter with me that left them uncomfortable.

I considered him more likely than not to have sexually assaulted the first victim, back when I knew only of her; between the other women coming forward and his own statement, he’s made it more plausible still.

HJH 2018-12-03: My dogs, this paper has apparently had a monumental impact on my writing skills! I went back and did a quick brush-up, so it should smell a little less. If you’re super-paranoid that I’m flooding the place with deodorant, have at’er.

If instead you’re stinky that I didn’t write up something more substantive, Nathan has you covered.

And then there’s the colleague he harassed. He responds by saying that she gave everyone hugs. He admits to saying to her “If I hug you I might just want more.” There is literally only one way to take that statement. It’s sexual.

I could maybe season the post with a little more science, but the Venn diagram of our reactions is nearly all overlap. It’s worth a sniff.

Also, I see PZ Myers has back-tracked.

Not Well-Meaning

I’ve dealt with Darryl Bem’s work a few times, and my general impression was that he was a well-meaning kook: yes, he’s believed PSI was real for decades, but I got the impression that he was willing to listen to his critics and incorporate their feedback.

[Dr. Kenneth] Zucker referred to another article in Clinical Practice in Pediatric Psychology that he claimed implies that “the first line of treatment should be a gender social transition.” Dr. Diane Chen, one of the authors of that paper, told Rewire.News that was incorrect. “I would not agree with that,” wrote Chen. “As you’ll see from the ‘ongoing controversies’ section for pre-pubertal youth, we discuss the relative harm of encouraging social transition.” The paper recommends instead that parents of children considering or undergoing social transition keep their statements to their children open-ended with respect to their eventual adolescence and adulthood.

I don’t get that impression with Dr. Zucker. Siobhan managed to contact the man after his name came up in the news again, and he still seems to be spreading misinformation and common myths.

A common myth about the type of service described by the AAP, and the service Dr. Janssen offers, is that youth are rushed into referrals for hard-to-reverse or irreversible transition procedures. “If someone comes in and their child is saying, ‘I’ve been thinking about this for the last two weeks,’ it’s not like anybody’s going to make a recommendation that child goes on a some sort of irreversible intervention,” Janssen told us. “It’s more like: Let’s understand this and let’s see how this develops over time.” Any biomedical intervention for an adolescent would only be recommended after they meet the criteria for gender dysphoria in the current version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which requires a strong desire to be another sex that persists for at least six months.

Here he is, in print, repeating TERF misinformation about gender dysphoria treatment under the guise of it being a political disagreement. But while I’m willing to give Dr. Harriet Hall some benefit of the doubt on the topic of gender dysphoria, as she demonstrates no expertise, Dr. Zucker quite literally wrote the definition. He cannot invoke ignorance as a defense. Worse, he may not have changed his approach to gender dysphoria treatment, despite the evidence suggesting he should.

The [Centre for Addiction and Mental Health]’s report stopped shy of characterizing Dr. Kenneth Zucker’s practice as conversion therapy, but it did conclude his methods were “out of step” with the latest research findings and that they warranted sweeping reforms. Zucker’s clinic, which was housed inside CAMH but operated largely independently, closed later that year;  […]

Zucker confirmed with Rewire.News that he still offers services similar to his CAMH clinic at his private practice.

If Darryl Bem is a well-meaning kook, Dr. Zucker is a dangerous one. He appears immune to outside criticism, yet comes across as an authority to a lay person. Siobhan’s article lays this out quite nicely; despite being a news report, she has no problem poking giant holes in his assertions. I recommend giving it a read.