About Rationally Speaking


Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Podcast Teaser: Cordelia Fine on Delusions of Gender

by Massimo Pigliucci
The next guest on the Rationally Speaking podcast will be Cordelia Fine, author of Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences. Fine is an academic psychologist, and previously author of A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives, and she will be joining us from her base in Melbourne, Australia.
Delusions of Gender is a vehement attack on what Fine considers pseudo-scientific claims about the differences between the sexes. Sex discrimination is supposedly a distant memory, yet popular books, magazines and even scientific articles increasingly defend inequalities by citing immutable biological differences between the male and female brain. That’s the reason, we’re told, that there are so few women in science and engineering and so few men in the laundry room — different brains are just better suited to different things. 
Drawing on the latest research in developmental psychology, neuroscience, and social psychology, Fine sets out to rebut these claims, showing how old myths, dressed up in new scientific finery, are helping to perpetuate the sexist status quo.
One of our previous podcast guests, Carol Tavris, had this to say about the book: "a witty and meticulously researched exposé of the sloppy studies that pass for scientific evidence in so many of today’s bestselling books on sex differences. ... Anyone who would like to know what today’s best science reveals about gender differences — and similarities — could not do better than read this book."
Naturally, this is going to be a rather controversial topic, and we welcome readers’ comments and questions for Dr. Fine. Post away!

89 comments:

  1. Heh. While, yes, there are differences between the sexes, anatomically speaking. And maybe we even have brain function that is more receptive to certain things than others, but it's not an accurate assessment of why men and women are 'better suited' to certain areas of life. Culture norms is a more likely factor in why children of different genders are encouraged to look towards certain areas of study. After hundreds of years of social conditioning it's not an easy stigma to break out of. It's certainly not impossible. Personally I excel at science, math, and have my Bacherlors and Masters in Aerospace Engineering. I was fortunate enough to have parents that always encouraged me to pursue whatever goal I set without imposing cultural biases.

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  2. I would like it if you could ask whether or not the author thinks that good science that perpetuates a distasteful idea is acceptable.

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  3. I am curious what she thinks this research may mean for people who identify as transgendered, and their identification with either a gender different from the physical sex they are born with or (possibly) with societal gender norms different from what society imposes on them.

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  4. Biological differences or lack of same aside, there are differences, whether they're cultural or not in nature. And these differences are not about to go away, either. Saying anything else is pie-in-the-sky ridiculous, to me. And as a result, there are people who end up on the wrong side of the fence, so to speak - whose gender does not fit the body they were born with. Results like these, while on the surface a victory for equality, end up being erasive of the very real and entirely unjustifiable discrimination, even threats and violence, these people face each day.

    Delusions they may be, but that doesn't mean they will disappear overnight, and until they do, we need to consider the ramifications of them. Consider, well, reality, as it were.

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  5. Okay, so the sexes--are "equal", i.e., the same. My guess is Dr. Fine's next book will be a treatise on race being a mere social construct.

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  6. Avigdor, that's interesting. Do you actually have scientific evidence that there are significant (i.e., literally non skin deep) differences among races? Could you point me to it?

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  7. Hi Massimo,

    I am looking forward to this podcast, and I hope you and Dr. Fine have an excellent discussion.

    Additionally, your discussion will likely provide valuable information for my professional life, namely, HR. I thank you for that :)

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  8. Massimo--

    Aren't there well-established variations in disease incidence between races? Differences in average height?

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  9. Massimo: I’ve just finished The Blank Slate, and based on your Amazon review of Fine’s book, I plan to read Delusions of Gender next. I’d like to know more about the role of gender peer groups and children.

    When parents attempt to raise children in a gender neutral environment, they’re often dismayed when their children adopt traditional roles. As one anecdote, a friend of mine was disappointed when her 4-year-old daughter wanted to be a Disney princess instead of an astronaut for Halloween. Obviously culture is at play here, because the 4-year-old didn’t concoct the Disney princess convention on her own. When researchers look into gender differences and children, short of completely isolating their subjects from the world, how do they account for peer and cultural influences to examine if innate gender preferences are at work?

    As a corollary, I’m also curious about examples of early gender reassignment cases (usually the occurring because of botched circumcisions). What do these cases tell us about gender, biology and culture?

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  10. Does Dr.Fine believe that the neuroscientific claims of the last ten years have been less convincing than what has been claimed to the contrary by the social sciences? And are the two held to similar standards? And does social scientific claims about gender differences or similarities pose similar dangers?

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  11. Ritchie, yes, nobody disputes the existence of some average (though often tiny) metabolic or physiological differences among ethnic groups, though even there the science behind the claims are much disputed. But human cognitive abilities are a whole different shebang, considering how much more complex the nature-nurture interactions are.


    fandarzelig, that makes for a nice pair of books. Of course, I may play my own fiddle here and recommend my "Phenotypic Plasticity: Beyond Nature and Nurture." The last chapter in particular tackles the human side of the controversy.

    Oh, and Fine does get into the type of anecdotal evidence from parents you mention. It makes for fascinating reading.

    James, this isn't an issue of social vs. biological science. It's a question of what exactly the available research supports (not much, as it turns out), and the demonstrably pernicious consequences of not challenging it.

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  12. It would be shocking if there weren't significant differences among races.

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  13. Fine's book was pretty interesting except her writing style was disappointing...far too much cutesyness, which detracts from the scholarly points that she brings up. I would have appreciated a more direct, scholarly tone.

    I'm hoping that "Brain Storm" (by Rebecca Jordan-Young) will be equal in scholarship but skip out on the playfulness.

    By the way, if you want to learn about statistics as they have been applied and misapplied to male/female brain differences, I highly recommend reading Rich Smith's great article in Current Anthropology (2005):
    "Relative Size versus Controlling for Size:
    Interpretation of Ratios in Research on Sexual Dimorphism in the Human Corpus Callosum"

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  14. CVC, are you making an argument from plausibility? Based on what? And of course plausibility ain't science.

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  15. Based on how evolution works, based on observable differences in outcomes.

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  16. Baloney. I'm an evolutionary biologist, and I can tell you that evolution per se does not guarantee differences, and certainly not behavioral differences. It may or may not happen, but it's an empirical question, not one that can be settled based on "expectation."

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  17. I'm curious why you say "and certainly not behavioral differences."

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  18. It would be surprising if a random process, which has produced genetic differences, and obvious outward physical differences, has not produced any differences in brains. Perhaps you could share some empirical evidence all evolved differences between human populations are trivial.

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  19. Here's a good place to start exploring "scientific evidence that there are significant...differences among races" http://www.charlesdarwinresearch.org/reb.html

    The discussion as to the "hows" and the "whys" that the Boasian revolution in anthropology triumphed and theorists who believed that race was important for explaining human behavior were squeezed out belongs to another thread.

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  20. Ritchie, because simple biochemical changes like, say, those involved in malaria-resistant hemoglobin are much less affected by environmental effects than complex, far removed from the direct genetic level, behaviors.

    CVC, just check any textbook in human population genetics, you will find that more than 95% of the variation in the human genome is within, not across groups.

    Avigdor, I have no idea of the reliability of the site you linked to. Any peer reviewed paper you care to cite?

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  21. Massimo--

    Sure, but does that mean that neurobiological changes are less likely to come about through evolution, or merely that their existence is harder to discern?

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  22. Ritchie, I don't really think anyone is seriously arguing that there are no neurological differences between genders. The question is whether behavioral plasticity can blur the lines enough that it doesn't matter. Judging from animal models, all the way beck to the experiments on rat intelligence in the 1950s (again, see my Phenotypic Plasticity book), seem to show that that is most likely the case. At any rate, Fine criticizes the claims made on behalf of shoddy science, not the very idea that there may be differences between genders. Isn't the burden of proof on those who do make the claim?

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  23. Massimo--

    There is indeed a burden of proof on those who claim inequality, but we need not default to a belief in equality when the evidence for that is insufficient either. If there is neither evidence for nor against the claim that X is more G than Y, it is not, despite what many people seem to think, rational to hold that X and Y are equally G.

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  24. The site essentially revolves around J.P. Rushton's (professor of psychology at the University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario) "RACE, EVOLUTION, and BEHAVIOR: A Life History Perspective". On the site there are reviews by qualified, albeit politically incorrect, peers: Richard Lynn, Henry Harpending, Charles Murray,Arthur R. Jensen, among others.

    While I'm not a PhD, I do hold a Master's in Education and have taught high school and junior high for the past 18 years. Even so, I take more pride in my powers of observation and common sense than I do in my advanced degree. Common sense and observation show us that race is much more than a "social construct".

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  25. Richie, normally I would agree that there is no need for a null hypothesis, if we were engaging in pure science. But that would be a disingenuous or dangerous attitude to take in an area where there are clear and potentially pernicious social consequences.

    Take the infamous Larry Summers "women are genetically less predisposed to do science and math" (I'm paraphrasing) moment. Fine goes in detail concerning the science backing up that claim (largely, the idea that males show more variance than females for cognitive traits) and shows that it is bunk. Summers, given his position of influence and authority, would have done better to follow Wittgenstein's dictum, if you don't know what you are talking about, shut the hell up (again, I'm paraphrasing ;-)

    Avigdor, I put precisely no stake in the words of Murray and Jensen, because I've read their work.

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  26. Some variations are more significant than others (what's the variation between humans and chimps?), so pointing to the total amount of variation is a non sequitur. I also thought the figure was 85%.

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  27. You are confusing variation (95% within human pops) with overall similarity (90% with chimps, depending on how you count). And yes, of course some type of variant are more important than others, but there really is no convincing evidence - despite what a lot of people keep assuming - that there are important, genetic-based, environmentally unbridgeable, differences among races. There may be, but it's a claim with huge social consequences, and one better get solid science behind it before making it, no?

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  28. There's no convincing evidence all of Africa is a giant coincidence.

    The equalitarian assumption is the claim with huge social consequences. Foreign aid is wasted. Large amounts of time and money are wasted in futile efforts to achieve equal outcomes. Potentially disastrous immigration policies are pursued.

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  29. Okay, now you are just been silly. Have a good weekend.

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  30. Argh. What is so difficult about the following concepts: (1) yes, there are differences between the sexes, and it is a no-brainer that "living in" (really: being) a body with different reproductive equipment must have some effect on your psyche; BUT (2) that does not mean that both should not have equal rights.

    Why is it that so many people either feel justified to jump from differences to the justification of inequality, or else feel forced to pretend against evidence that all differences are so-called societal constructs? (This rant is not to imply that your guest actually belongs to the second group.)

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  31. Alex, I agree. I don't think Fine belongs to that second group, and certainly neither do I. But unless we have a very optimistic (and totally unrealistic) view of human nature, you know as well as I do that making "scientific" claims of profound differences has pernicious consequences. My point is that such claims should not be made unless the evidence is solid. After which we can still teach to people that one cannot derive an ought from an is... unless one is Sam Harris! (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

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  32. For information on race, I highly recommend this site produced by the American Anthropological Association: http://www.understandingrace.org/home.html

    It touches on all the assumptions people are making in this thread.

    Looking forward to the podcast with Dr. Fine.

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  33. Massimo--

    Sorry to take on the tone of a challenge once again (it's just how I am! I'm a young man with lots of testosterone!), but why should we be more concerned about the dangers of overstating sex differences than the dangers of understating them?

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  34. "James, this isn't an issue of social vs. biological science. It's a question of what exactly the available research supports (not much, as it turns out), and the demonstrably pernicious consequences of not challenging it." - Massimo

    Yes, but the "demonstrably pernicious consequences" are only demonstrable to the degree that the underlying social science, and its theory, can be relied on, so yeah, it matter. If the social science that underpins "pernicious consequences" is not more reliable than the neuroscience that she's warning us against, why does she accept one and not the other? It's just a question. You don't have to ask it.

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  35. While I think there is some "shoddy" science attempting to show gender differences, there is also an extremely strong politically correct belief that both genders are the same and that it is distasteful to suggest otherwise. I've experienced liberal academic types (confession: I'm liberal) who were immediately dismissive of any evidence that there could be gender differences in terms of ability in math, language, etc. I'm trying to keep an open mind on the topic (like most topics, except for the Pope's beautification).

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  36. Ritchie, I don't follow. What exactly would be the danger of understating the differences?

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  37. James, I'm having a real hard time understanding how so many of my readers, who are normally so savvy,mail to understand that there is a fundamental asymmetry here: if the science claiming gender differences is bad, the cosequences are pernicious. If we somehow err on the side of caution, the consequence is simply going to be that what would naturally happen would happen anyway. The two cases are far from being identical.

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  38. Paul, yes, I'm aware of exaggerated political correctness, and I'm irritated by it as well. But that doesn't license the shoddy science on the other side. A rational and considerate person would criticize both.

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  39. Massimo--

    If we understated sex differences, we might, say, think that women are being discriminated against when they really aren't. Believing people are facing discrimination when they're not is a bad thing.

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  40. As lifelong male feminist I hold that women should have equal opportunities no matter if they are on average more, less, or equally smart comparing to man. (The same goes to different races, ethnicity, etc.). I personally like women better as friends and coworkers though.

    My strongest impression with Dr. Fine's book, however, is that it seems to be driven by ideology. It is typically a strong red flag for bias.

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  41. Not a fan of Murray and Jensen? Okay.

    What do you make of the UCLA study pointing to very high heritability of IQ and behavioral restraint? See this link http://newsroom.ucla.edu/portal/ucla/more-proof-that-intelligence-is-85134.aspx

    The connections in the parietal lobe associated with math and logic are 85% heritable, while the connections in the frontal lobe responsible for working memory and for inhibiting impulsive behavior are 65% heritable. Behavioral restraint relates to behavioral control-–things like being able to inhibit immediate gratification and plan for the future . These are traits that show important race differences associated with criminality, especially impulsive criminality.

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  42. I'm looking forward to this discussion, as I have little knowledge on the subject. Subsequently, the rest of this comment may be terribly uninformed...

    I object to how the above introduction was worded.

    "That’s the reason, we’re told, that there are so few women in science and engineering and so few men in the laundry room."

    I can imagine (although I'm intrigued to find out the science by listening to the next podcast) some neurobiological differences which would make males better suited to a scientific mindset, therefore making them better in scientific and engineering careers. I'm assuming that's what the current (possibly sloppy) research concludes.

    However that doesn't automatically mean that women are better suited to the laundry room/housework, which I feel is implied by the wording, and I don't think anyone is claiming that. Yet apparently we're being 'told' this? By who?

    I know it's subtle, but it just struck me as a bit of a straw-man - including stereotypically sexist language, making it sound like scientists were claiming more than they do.

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  43. Ritchie, aren't you confusing things now? Genetic differences would (hypotethically) explain differences of outcome. But even if women, say, did turn out to have a slightly less natural aptitude for science, why on earth would that justify discriminatory policies?

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  44. Avigdor, you keep confusing things. First off, heritability is a different issue from gender differences. Second, there is a huge literature questioning what, exactly, IIQ measures. Lastly - and I actually have done research in my lab on this - the whole measure of heritability is fraught with so many problems that, again, it's not at all clear what exactly it is measuring. (For instance, in experimental animals heritability can be made to vary from 0 to 100% by changing the environmental conditions.)

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  45. Massimo,

    You said: "But even if women, say, did turn out to have a slightly less natural aptitude for science, why on earth would that justify discriminatory policies?"

    I think you're misunderstanding Ritchie's last sentence. I believe he means: It is a bad thing to believe people are facing discrimination when they're not.

    I agree with him that there is potential danger in false assumptions in either direction because false assumptions are likely to lead to ineffective policies. I think this was part of the argument of that recent paper "Understanding current causes of women’s underrepresentation in science". Though I confess I haven't read it - sorry.

    Alex SL spoke of those who "jump from differences to the justification of inequality" and those who "pretend against evidence that all differences are so-called societal constructs". My impression is that much of the second group is actually motivated by sharing an underlying belief in the validity of the first group's claim.

    For this reason, I think it is worth both sides emphatically restating that we passionately believe in equality of opportunity regardless of the nature of gender differences.

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  46. GoogleGhost,

    there is absolutely no question that women and minorities are still facing discrimination, and my worry is simply that shoddy science lends credibility to the already existing discrimination. Again, I'm stunned by how so many people here seem to think we live in some sort of parallel universe where we have achieved justice and equality for all. Don't you guys read newspapers?

    But of course I completely agree with your last sentence. Cheers to that!

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  47. Massimo, I'm not failing to understand at all, in fact, I completely agree. Bad science always risks dire consequences (like any falsity); however, what's being said is not simply that bad science can have consequences, but that the nature of those consequences (exactly who will suffer from bad gender science) can be known because of other science. My question is, is the science characterizing our worries any more reliable than the science we're being cautious of.

    I think this is an opportunity for Fine. Unless she can answer yes, the science that characterizes the consequences of bad gender related neuroscience is better, more reliable, and more certain, it looks as if, rather than promoting the integrity of science, that she is peddling a particular rand of social science.

    My suspicion is that she will answer "I don't know, I'm not a social scientist", or "yes, the social science underpinning my view of the nature of gender is far more reliable that the neuroscience that indicates otherwise", or possibly "I'm relating the risks of bad science to what has become a consensus with regard to gender issues, not as a guardian of that consensus, but to breath life and relevance into the importance of scientific rigor". I'd just like to hear what she thinks the role of her work is within the context of the larger debate on gender.

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  48. Massimo,

    Three points:

    (1) You said: "Again, I'm stunned by how so many people here seem to think we live in some sort of parallel universe where we have achieved justice and equality for all. Don't you guys read newspapers?"

    Again, I think you're misunderstanding. Another rewording of Ritchie's last sentence: It is a bad thing to believe that specific groups of people are facing discrimination when those specific groups of people are not.

    I certainly don't think (and I don't get the impression Ritchie thinks) that all discrimination against women has been eradicated. Remember, the context is that Ritchie was arguing:
    * that there is a burden of proof on the "no gender difference" camp just as there is on the "big gender differences" camp and
    * that in the absence of evidence from either camp, we should acknowledge the uncertainty rather than working on the assumption that either is right.

    You responded by asking "What exactly would be the danger of understating the differences?"

    He suggested that it might lead to thinking discrimination exists in places where it doesn't and that this would be a bad thing. I'd also suggest it might lead to ineffective policies for improving things for women (see "Understanding current causes of women’s underrepresentation in science", which I still haven't read - sorry).

    None of this indicates we think there is no discrimination.

    (2) I completely support scrutinising shoddy science. Please keep it up. :-)

    (3) You say you worry that "shoddy science lends credibility to the already existing discrimination". But isn't this falling into the trap of suggesting you accept the "is->ought" assumption of the sexist? If you say shoddy science lends credibility to the already existing discrimination, people might interpret that as "but if if turned out that this science were robust and correct, then the discrimination would be justified". I'm sure you don't mean that but this is my point. I'm arguing that if you think the science is shoddy, then it's really important that you *don't* say:

    "the science is shoddy therefore discrimination is not justified"

    ...but instead say:

    "Discrimination is unjustified, regardless of any differences that we may or may not find. Incidentally, I think this science here is shoddy because..."

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  49. Sorry, I recognize that I've gone off topic on my own tangent. I know heritability is a different issue from gender differences, but thought you were indulging that deviation. I'll bow out gracefully. Cheers

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  50. @Google Ghost

    I don't think the question is whether we believe there are "no gender differences" or "big gender differences", out of context. The question is, when we observe large differences in outcomes between men and women, how do we explain them? Research that proves the existence of biological differences tends to set these forward as explanations, thus promoting inaction. This is especially true because claims derived from "hard" sciences have a veneer of respectability. If Fine shows that most, or all, of these claims are based on shoddy methodology, then we will need to find other causal mechanisms, that may well be within our control. This doesn't necessarily mean that women face open discrimination. Massimo likes to refer (disapprovingly) to Larry Summers' "biological" argument, but I've always liked his idea of the demands placed on women by traditional gender roles. And that is just one possible factor.

    I don't think anyone is seriously advocating the false dichotomy between discrimination and biology. In fact, from Fine's introduction it seems like she is pointing out how unsatisfactory this dichotomy is.

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  51. "Discrimination is unjustified" is a tautology.

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  52. I’ve never posted before but I’d like to know if the logic behind the following is sound or am I missing something basic.

    From the work of Donald E Brown on Human Universals in which he describes hundreds of human features that seem to be universal traits whether they be cultural, environmental or genetic:

    Here are some arbitrary ones:
    -Childhood fear of strangers
    -Empathy
    -Envy
    -in group distinguished from out group
    -Language employed to manipulate others
    -Music
    -Sexual jealousy
    Etc.

    In other words if you were a Martian and came down to earth to study humans, you would find many species specific traits just as you would with any other species like chimpanzees, however complicated which one could characterize as ‘objective’ facts about humans. Given these facts there are probably certain types of moral systems that are more or less compatible with human nature. EO Wilson once said something to the effect that Marx was right, it’s just that he got the wrong species – Ants – i.e. Marxism doesn’t work according to this logic because it is incompatible with human nature. A lot of this is what Darwin argued as well as recent writers like Marc Hauser in Moral Minds. For example if we were chimps, as laid out it a great novel by Will Self – Great Apes where chimps rule the world, in those societies polygamy would be the norm instead of an aberration as it is considered in our society. So one could argue that provided that certain types of morality are more compatible with human nature than others, there will be a bias in which ones may be considered to be moral.

    Why do we think empathy is important and moral? I could give rational arguments for why, but I think an evolutionary explanation would probably give a better reason why – and if I weren’t I might be considered to be suffering from a psychiatric disorder like autism or schizophrenia to describe why I lack feelings of empathy.

    So one could argue that nature in a way implanted a set of moral guidelines into us, so even though there can be differences in morality, the gravitational force of our nature will in some way constrain what we consider moral and immoral. So I supposed that if you assert that human flourishing is a subjective goal to build our morality on, in a way it isn’t entirely subjective in the sense that the desire for human flourishing might be objective if it is grounded in our innate empathy.

    But unfortunately it would be too easy if we could ground all of our morality in terms of human nature –another human trait I listed – preferences for in groups is in conflict with some ethical ideals of some of us if we want to derive out ethics from this moral trait.

    I don’t want to go on and on, but to say it seems to me that part of what is ethical or not depends upon our human nature, but since many of these things are in conflict, it is natural that what different people consider primary to base their morals on will be in conflict, even if they have an objective bases due to human nature as I have described. This may be some of what Jonathan Haight has suggested in his research on the different basis of morality of conservatives and liberals.

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  53. ' "Discrimination is unjustified" is a tautology. ' - jeremybee

    I understand what you mean but I disagree. Discrimination means distinguishing between one thing and another, which is often justifiable. One may discriminate with justification, so discrimination does not always entail a lack of justification. I'm sure what you mean is "prejudice."

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  54. Will there be any commentary on hermaphrodites or third and fourth genders?

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  55. James, that was directed at Google Ghost, who advised it was better than "discrimination is not justified."
    But "discrimination is unjustified" is like saying, it is what it is, and we already knew that. Supposedly we needed to know more about when is it what it is.
    As to the context at hand, discrimination is of course primarily defined as:
    1. the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things

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  56. Massimo,
    "Nobody disputes the existence of some average (though often tiny) metabolic or physiological differences among ethnic groups, though even there the science behind the claims are much disputed."

    Lactose intolerance affects 1% of the Dutch, 20% of Indians, 55% of Mexican Americans, 75% of African Americans, 90% of Asian Americans, 100% of Native Americans.

    Europeans tolerate alcohol much better than East Asians and Native Americans.

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  57. Get thee to a genderless kibbutz
    http://www.city-journal.org/html/15_2_boys_girls.html

    "Kibbutz parents agreed to see their own children only two hours a day, and for the remaining 22 hours to surrender them to the collective, which would raise them androgynously (trying more to “masculinize” women than “feminize” men). Boys and girls would henceforth do the same kind of work and wear the same kind of clothes. Girls would learn to be soldiers, just like boys. Signs of 'bourgeois' femininity — makeup, say — would now be taboo. As if they had stepped out of Plato’s Republic, the children would dress and undress together and even use the same showers.
    The experiment collapsed within a generation, and a traditional family and gender system reasserted itself."

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  58. What does Fine think about parents raising gay kids to be straight?

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  59. @jeremybee

    Yeah, I see what you mean. It's a terribly biased word to use when trying to decide whether a particular kind of treatment is just or not.

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  60. I think I have been misunderstood by several (oh woe is me ;-) ). This suggests the problem lies with my lack of clarity. Sorry.

    @jeremybee

    You said: '"Discrimination is unjustified" is a tautology.'

    Thanks - you may be right about the dictionary definition of discrimination. Still, I think that what you and I would call discrimination, would be seen as justifiable by many sexists. For this reason, I maintain it still has meaning for us to state we believe "discrimination is unjustified".

    You said: '[...] Google Ghost, who advised it was better than "discrimination is not justified."'

    I think this might indicate you have misunderstood my meaning. I meant nothing by the difference between the phrases "discrimination is not justified" and "discrimination is unjustified". Sorry for my sloppy writing.

    @Maria (Thanks for your detailed response and...)

    You said: 'I don't think the question is whether we believe there are "no gender differences" or "big gender differences", out of context. The question is, when we observe large differences in outcomes between men and women, how do we explain them?'

    Sorry. That's what I meant. I should have said something more like "no innate biological gender differences (IBGDs)" and "big IBGDs".

    You said: "Research that proves the existence of biological differences tends to set these forward as explanations, thus promoting inaction."

    We should argue that it shouldn't promote inaction, even if it were robust. We mustn't let action against discrimination be dependent on there being no significant IBGDs.

    You said: "If Fine shows that most, or all, of these claims are based on shoddy methodology, then we will need to find other causal mechanisms, that may well be within our control."

    Do you mean that if the evidence for big IBGDs is bad, we should assume there are no (significant) IBGDs? If so, I disagree. When we have insufficient evidence, I think it's important to acknowledge that we don't know, rather than making assumptions. Importantly, I don't think it is sexist to be open to the possibility of big IBGDs. I'm fearful that if we make unsupported assumptions based on what we want to be true (in either direction) then we're liable to misdiagnose and hence mistreat unequal opportunities. This will harm those we most want to help.

    I think we have nothing to fear from the possibility of big IBGDs, because we should argue that equality of opportunity is a moral principle, not an empirical consequence of there being no significant IBGDs.

    You said: "I don't think anyone is seriously advocating the false dichotomy between discrimination and biology. In fact, from Fine's introduction it seems like she is pointing out how unsatisfactory this dichotomy is."

    I'm sorry; I'm genuinely not sure what you're saying here. In case your meaning is to defend Fine from my criticisms: I'm not criticising her at all, indeed I know nothing about here work (apart from what I read in this teaser).

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  61. James,

    > My question is, is the science characterizing our worries any more reliable than the science we're being cautious of. <

    My point is that the two cases are asymmetrical. I see little harm in underestimating (alleged) biological differences between genders, and quite a bit of harm following by shoddy scientific claims to the opposite. This is because we already live in a society whether discrimination is a reality and people are looking for all sorts of excuses to justify it.

    GoogleGhost, something similar goes for what you wrote:

    > It is a bad thing to believe that specific groups of people are facing discrimination when those specific groups of people are not. <

    No, I don't think it is as bad, especially if we agree that discrimination shouldn't be allowed no matter what the science of gender (or race) differences says.

    > it might lead to ineffective policies for improving things for women <

    I seriously doubt that. Research on animal systems (the only reliable source of genotype-environment interaction studies) shows that even when there are strong genetic differences a change in the environment can improve performance of most genotypes.

    > isn't this falling into the trap of suggesting you accept the "is->ought" assumption of the sexist? <

    No, I certainly don't accept the is/ought trap. But I'm realistic enough that when a scientist claims that women are just not as apt to math because of their genes, plenty of people will say "see? so stop bothering me about gender discrimination." I'm trying to be pragmatic here.

    Mike, the existence of human universals proves precisely nothing, other than the human species is different from chimpanzees. It's a long argument (see my Making Sense of Evolution for details), but it is the fundamental mistake made by many evolutionary psychologists.

    Max,

    > Lactose intolerance affects 1% of the Dutch, 20% of Indians, 55% of Mexican Americans, 75% of African Americans, 90% of Asian Americans, 100% of Native Americans. <

    As I said, largely trivial, and certainly non-cognitive, differences.

    > Get thee to a genderless kibbutz <

    First, once again that's apples and oranges. The existence of, say, innate maternal instincts says precisely nothing about cognitive differences between genders. Second, that type of example is similar in kind to the experience of liberal parents who find their children develop gender differences despite their best attempts at gender-neutral parenting. Fine has a chapter on that that makes for pretty surprising and instructing reading.

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  62. I didn't read the book but I hear Cordelia talk in several interviews. My feeling is that she is agenda driven. She portrayed every study that find any biological sex difference as shady or flawd and doesn't have the same scrunity to studies that show no difference. This is a very typical strategy that I encounter often. Some people do agree that there might be some biological sex difference but dismiss any of them when they are presented as not robust. Of course we can find problems with any study in the social sciences, but that will get us nowhere. I recommend to people reading Simon Baron Cohen response to her allegations that his studies are not good enough, expoloring some of the biased in her logic.

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  63. gil, I respect your opinion, but I find it interesting that a) you accuse Fine of bias even though you admit you have not read the book; and b) you seem to think that other people, Cohen say, automatically come without bias...

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  64. Massimo, yes, every one comes with a bias, but but does this mean that we should listen to the actual claims made and evaluate them?

    Ane yes, I didn't read the book but I think that I do know much of the literature on the topic and believe that the evidence for certain sex difference is robust (for example, mental rotations and the proportion of men to women in some disorders).

    By the way, I also disagree with you that we should downplay sex difference because people might use them to justify discrimination or not understand what they actually mean. That creates a bias in what scientists can study. If a researcher thinks that his research will not be received the same way like others, just because he or she find some differences (and not because of bad science), I think that discourage studying the topic in the first place.

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  65. gil, I agree that every claim needs to be scrutinized. It just didn't seem to me that you have Fine a fair shake.

    As for being familiar with the literature, I have studied genotype-environment interactions professionally as a biologist for more than two decades, so I do think I know the literature...

    Your final comment is interesting, and I'm having a hard time grappling with that issue. I am putting together a presentation for a forthcoming meeting in San Francisco on race, so this is relevant. I'm beginning to think that science shouldn't be treated as a value-neutral enterprise, largely because it really isn't. If the science being done does have a significant, likely negative impact, on society, I'm not so sure anymore that we should push it in the abstract name of a quest for knowledge.

    (Of course, all of this needs to be understood within the broader context that I don't think discrimination can be defended regardless of what the science says about differences between human groups.)

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  66. I jave no doubt that you are an expert on the subject as well and I am looking forward to the podcast and reading the book.

    Regarding the last comment, the question in my opinion is: do scientiss have to restrict themselves just because there are some ignorant/populist/agenda driven people out there in the public, or should they try to educate them how to understand a scientific claim? I believe that scientists are not doing enough in explaining what they are doing and the educational system doesn't help either. But this a problem for the society, not just the scientists.

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  67. Why are males more likely than females to develop autism, Asperger syndrome, and schizophrenia?

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  68. @Massimo,

    You said: "My point is that the two cases are asymmetrical. I see little harm in [...]" and "No, I don't think it is as bad [...]"

    (1) Well you may be right. But then I think its a dangerous game to start choosing which unsupported assumptions might be helpful. If you're arguing that in the absence of decent evidence, we should assume no significant innate differences (rather than acknowledging our lack of knowledge and pursuing the truth) because your unevidenced intuition is that the practical consequences might be better, then do you still get you get to wear your "rational-high-ground" hat?

    Surely the whole point of the rational movement is to be guided by the evidence, rather than what you wish to believe. I would guess plenty of the people you rightly criticise, also intuit practical benefits to their unevidenced assumptions. Those rejecting Darwin spring to mind.

    (2) I'm not at all sure you are right that this assumption is harmless...

    Broadly speaking, I believe that striving for truth above all else tends to lead to the best in the long run (and that we should do that except where the evidence for the dangers is overwhelming). I think selling out on the truth for perceived short term gains is a cause of long term harm.

    Our best chance of effective policy on the matter comes from accurate diagnosis. Policy comes down to a lot more than whether or not we should fight discrimination. I don't see how your point about animal systems makes inaccurate diagnosis any more appealing.

    If we erroneously insist there are no significant innate differences, we'll complacently waste valuable resources (for example on every situation where the numbers aren't exactly 50%/50%). If we remain open-minded, we have a much better hope to target real discrimination and to exert the extra effort to find and help those women who really need it. That's really serious.

    You say "people are looking for all sorts of excuses to justify it". Again, I think it's really important that our first response to this is: "significant innate differences would not justify discrimination" before "you're evidence isn't robust". What if it eventually turns out that the evidence in favour of significant innate differences is robust? If it becomes apparent our whole case has been built on a false assumption, it'll fall apart and hence provide a much stronger excuse to justify discrimination.


    You said: "No, I certainly don't accept the is/ought trap".

    No, I'm sure you don't Massimo :-). But I wish to highlight that some of the things you've said could so easily be interpreted that way. If we give the sense that we're desperate to persuade everyone that there are no differences and we're angry with everyone that suggests otherwise, we risk reinforcing the perception that we do so because we fear differences would justify discrimination.


    You said: "I'm trying to be pragmatic here."

    But then, if it turns out the bell curve for innate maths ability IS very slightly higher for one gender or the other, you may end up doing much harm than good by outright rejecting the possibility.


    For the record, you quoted me as saying "It is a bad thing to believe that specific groups of people are facing discrimination when those specific groups of people are not". In fact, that was my attempt to reword Ritchie's assertion to avoid what I perceived to be your misunderstandings. Certainly, I agree that it'd be horrible to be falsely accused of discrimination but I think that's probably less important than the "inaccurate diagnosis leads to ineffective treatment" point.

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  69. Max, males tend to suffer from more diseases than females because of the well know XX vs. XY chromosome difference. Once again, nobody is trying to deny that there are genetic differences between genders. Just look at the size of male and female breasts, if you have any doubt.

    gil, there is no question that this a societal and educational problem, not just the scientists'. But the fact remains that in an area where reliable facts are scarce and societal ills are very likely, scientists ought to restrain themselves. That's all I'm arguing for.

    GG, I think we are much closer to each other than you have acknowledged so far.

    > If you're arguing that in the absence of decent evidence, we should assume no significant innate differences (rather than acknowledging our lack of knowledge and pursuing the truth) because your unevidenced intuition is that the practical consequences might be better, then do you still get you get to wear your "rational-high-ground" hat? <

    I really don't think mine is unevidenced intuition. Again read Fine (or several others) and you'll find a persistent history of racists and sexists using the alleged science to justify their discriminatory practices.

    > I believe that striving for truth above all else tends to lead to the best in the long run <

    Maybe, though I do wonder what sort of evidence we have for that statement ;-) But my point is that the "truth" here is being oversold, on both sides. Hence my position that both biologists and social scientists should really moderate dramatically what they are saying.

    > What if it eventually turns out that the evidence in favour of significant innate differences is robust? <

    As I said, that *should* have no consequence for how we treat people. But as I also pointed out, it is naive to imagine that it wouldn't.

    > if it turns out the bell curve for innate maths ability IS very slightly higher for one gender or the other, you may end up doing much harm than good by outright rejecting the possibility. <

    I'm not rejecting the possibility. I'm saying that it is very likely (again, based on animal studies) that those differences will turn out to be both small and plastic in response to the environment. And we don't know whether they exist. And it shouldn't matter anyway. (No, I'm not trying to have it both ways, if you have followed our exchange so far, which I'm sure you have.)

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  70. Massimo,

    You said: "I think we are much closer to each other than you have acknowledged so far."

    Yes, we're probably pretty close. I originally thought I'd only contribute to this thread to highlight your misreading of one of Ritchie the Bear's comments. How naive of me :-). I should probably stop commenting now so that I can write up my PhD instead.


    You said: "I really don't think mine is unevidenced intuition. Again read Fine (or several others) and you'll find a persistent history of racists and sexists using the alleged science to justify their discriminatory practices."

    Sure, but I'm not convinced that this is good evidence that it's better to assume no differences than to be open-minded. By analogy: in the long run, I think it's better to encourage a good understanding of evolutionary biology rather than stifle the theory for fear of idiots misunderstanding it dangerously.

    I've noticed you sometimes assert that the burden of proof is on those with whom you disagree. I wish to suggest that the burden of proof is on anyone who makes a claim to knowledge and that this often means there is an equal burden of proof on both sides of an argument.


    You said: "it is naive to imagine that it wouldn't."

    Is it? I think most sexists are utterly convinced of massive innate differences anyway so I'm not sure it would change their behaviour much at all.

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  71. @Massimo,

    If we don't hear from @Max for a while, it may be because he's spending time following your suggestion. ;-)

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  72. Massimo,

    It sounds like you accept that boys and girls have different preferences, but deny that they have cognitive differences. But the difference in preferences is perhaps an even more important factor in predicting performance. If women are less likely to eat, drink, and sleep math, they're less likely to excel at it.

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  73. Perhaps the burdens of proof as they apply to women should be equally applied to men, where gender is the only difference not reasonably in doubt.

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  74. GG, I;m not clear on your analogy with evolutionary theory. For one thing, we know a hell of a lot more about that than we do about the gene-environment interactions underlying human cognitive traits. Moreover, seems to me that the social consequences are much bigger in the latter case than in the former.

    As for burden of proof issues, I try my best to put it where it logically belongs. Contrary to popular opinion, that's not always on who makes the claim (depends on the claim), and it's not always equally distributed. I'm in the midst of writing a technical paper on this, stay tuned.

    > I think most sexists are utterly convinced of massive innate differences anyway so I'm not sure it would change their behaviour much at all. <

    Perhaps, but just like in the case of creationists, my target usually are the fence sitters, not the true believers.

    Max,

    > If women are less likely to eat, drink, and sleep math, they're less likely to excel at it. <

    I'm not sure what that means. But nobody s denying the existence of either preferences or cognitive differences. Those are the only thing we can measure. What is at issue is the quality of the evidence that specific behavioral or cognitive differences have a genetic basis *and* are for all effective purposes unalterable environmentally. I can't think of a single example where the burden of proof (see above) on that sort of claim has been reasonably met.

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  75. Massimo,

    I meant if women are less likely to obsess over math, science, or engineering, they're less likely to excel at it, even if they have the aptitude for it.

    I thought you agreed that behavioral gender differences are at least very hard to alter, when you referred to liberal parents who find their children develop gender differences despite their best attempts at gender-neutral parenting. A more extreme example would be conservative parents who find their gay children develop the wrong preferences despite their best attempts at raising them straight.

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  76. Max, fair enough, yes, if young women are less interested in science of course they will be less likely to excel at it. The question is *why* they may be less interested.

    You raise a good point about gays, where the current consensus is that nature clearly override nurture. But the situation for even the very early behavioral choices of young girls and boys is more difficult. Fine makes a good argument (based on evidence) that peer pressure, and a large number of simply unquestioned attitudes by even well intentioned parents, are enough to get the ball rolling. And once the ball has been rolling for a few years, naturally we see some differences between adult males and females.

    Nonetheless, what struck me as interesting in Fine's book is a large number of experiments showing how women's scores in math and science tests change dramatically depending on the social context: put them to take the test in a room full of males and they'll score under male average. Change the setting to a gender-neutral ratio and they'll do as well as the boys. That seems to me pretty strong evidence that whatever genetic differences there are may be erasable by environmental cues.

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  77. "But unless we have a very optimistic (and totally unrealistic) view of human nature, you know as well as I do that making "scientific" claims of profound differences has pernicious consequences".
    Only too true - look at the animal/human arguments on other threads: "differences" used to justify "treatment" - and life/death decisions: but here too the exercise of power (starting with the power to define and distinguish) is hard to give up, it seems.

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  78. My thought experiment on sexuality and genetic/environment interaction.

    I think it plausible that we could create an island of a single sex (lets say all males). Furthermore, in this semi-artificial environment we have removed all other opposite sexed animals and we have removed all references and knowledge of the "other" human sex. So, we have an island of all males that have no knowledge of the category female or that there is even the possibility of another sex, and would not have any reason to postulate a "second" sex. I assume the knowledge attainment, interactions, and consciousness of these individuals are some what close to ours.
    Now, lets assume that there is a genetic determination for our categories of homosexual and heterosexual as we commonly construe those terms. Lets assume on our island that these types of genetic or natural structures hold. I think we could still grant that there are behavioral differences in sexual engagement between the different holders of these genetic qualities, but, I assume, that such individuals would still hold to the possibilities of the island. That is, that although our "heterosexual males" on the island may have different sexual desires than our "homosexual males," both groups are still desiring individuals with penises. I assume that our "heterosexual males" do not just opt out. They do not say "I just do not feel like anyone on this island can satisfy me, I think I rather desire . . ." I am assuming that their sexual drive would override the "uneasiness" these "genetic heterosexuals" would feel at the social world and possibilities around them. They follow the norms and possibilities of what is in front of them, and so are "homosexuals"- at least meaning that they desire and have sex with their same sex, the only sex available. If their behaviors and desires are different it does not correlate with the major anatomical differences that we use to split up male/female and which we use to differentiate between homosexual and heterosexual, since these differences do not exist.

    Anyways, this just may show that the common definition of "sexuality" is problematic, especially if we wish to lay such a definition on top of the underlying genetic structures of sexual desires and drives.

    I have learned quite a bit from evo. psych. but many of their claims are problematic because of the inability to postulate radically different environments. That is the genetic determinants that they focus on hold only because they fail to radically rethink social structures.

    Any thoughts? Look forward to the interview.

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  79. Massimo, when asked about autism, aspergers, schizophrenia you said

    "Max, males tend to suffer from more diseases than females because of the well know XX vs. XY chromosome difference. Once again, nobody is trying to deny that there are genetic differences between genders. Just look at the size of male and female breasts, if you have any doubt."

    I thought Max's examples were very good and was eager to hear your response, but you seemed to sidestep the suggestion that these are significant cognitive differences, likening them to the physical breast difference... are you really saying that the brain processes responsible for autistic and schizophrenic behavior are not "cognitive"?

    Why aren't these male-skewed ratios evidence in favor of genetic cognitive differences?

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  80. Question for Cordelia Fine,

    You do a good job showing that the current evidence doesn't cut it. Can you give me some examples of evidence that would change your position significantly?

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  81. andy, as said above, nobody is questioning that human cognition has a genetic basis, and of course it can be disrupted by genetic anomalies (just think of Down syndrome). And if the anomaly is specific to the sex chromosomes, then this generates gender biases. But that says pretty much nothing about the more common run of the mill alleged differences between genders in, say, math abilities, or spatial navigation. The issue isn't whether there are genetic differences, since there likely are. Rather, the problems are: a) Is there good science demonstrating these differences? b) Can these differences be overcome by environmental changes, what biologists call phenotypic plasticity?

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  82. (I just changed my name from andy mkay)

    Massimo, a) is an excellent question and if Fine is correct the answer is no. How would you design experiments to test for this?

    And for b) what do you mean by environmental changes? In utero, or in targeted education, or in something else?

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  83. Andrew, all of the above. Fine goes through various types of environmental influences, from in-utero to those affecting early childhood, to those concerning adult behavior.

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  84. Massimo, I'm still waiting for Delusions from the library and I'm trying to think through the science behind this, so let me ask you this.

    What if we discovered that in the US toddler girls, teenage girls, and adult women outperform toddler boys, teenage boys, and adult men on math problems (controlled for education levels etc). Then we ran the same experiment on 10 randomly-sampled, very-different cultures and get the same results.

    Would this qualify as good science demonstrating a difference? And is there any other angle we could take to look at the problem?

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  85. Interesting link

    http://www.slate.com/id/2286671/

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  86. Andre, I'm not sure, I would have to know more about the experimental design. My experience with non-human systems in carrying out nature-nurture studies is that they are *extremely* tricky.

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  87. Aww, I was disappointed no one wanted to talk about what persuasive results *would* look like... we do that for other scientific questions. Perhaps in this case it's generally avoided because of the potentially "harmful consequences" Julia referred to... or maybe it only demonstrates that the Rationally Speaking Podcast isn't all about *me*. In any case, please help me think through this, I'd like to challenge your analogy...

    You presented Lewontin's Brick House and said that even if you can separate the effects of genes and environment "that still doesn't tell you anything... it's in the way they're layered throughout development..."

    Doesn't the degree to which a genetic reading is predictable of phenotype (some are approaching 100% predictability) actually tell you a lot rather than, to paraphrase, "not telling you anything of relevance in how to build a house"? Just because you can make renovations doesn't mean the bricks are irrelevant.

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  88. Andrew,

    I think I did address the evidence issue at some point. Basically, we know how to get meaningful info about gene-environment interactions, I've done it for years when I was a biologist. But it involves controlled mating patterns and controlled environments, neither of which are technically and ethically feasible for humans.

    As for Lewontin's metaphor, nobody claims that genes aren't important. But phenotypic predictability is close to zero if one considers only genes. One needs also to specify a number of environmental and developmental conditions, without which genes are just as useful as a pile of bricks.

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