Teenage Wasteland

An Interview with Clay Routledge at Psychology Today

This interview was originally published at Psychology Today. Read the original here.

Claire Lehmann is the founder and editor of Quillette, an online magazine that publishes essays on a range of topics related to politicssocial life, science, and academia. The magazine is quickly becoming a highly respected outlet for open discussion of topics in psychology and the social and behavioral sciences.

I reached out to Claire to discuss Quillette and the role she thinks it can play in academic and public conversations about issues relevant to psychology and related fields.

Could you describe what Quillette is for Psychology Today readers who may be unfamiliar with it?

Quillette is an online magazine (you can find it at Quillette.com) and we publish articles on politics, science (predominantly social science and psychology) as well as history, art and culture.

What inspired you to create Quillette?

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly. I think there was a confluence of factors. I had been writing a few columns for the local Sydney newspaper The Sydney Morning Herald, and I was very aware that I couldn’t write anything that was too academic or scholarly, and I also couldn’t write anything that was too politically incorrect. It felt very constrained.

I was also pursuing graduate studies at the time in forensic psychology and was becoming increasingly cynical about the university system. I was reading Peter Thiel, and was struck by his iconoclastic views on education; in particular his claim that the higher education system is like the Vatican on the eve of the reformation. So in mid-to-late 2015, I wrote an article for the Herald about universities in Australia being a road to nowhere, dropped out of my course, and two weeks later started Quillette.

I have seen a number of fascinating psychology-related essays in Quillette on topics such as the role of gender differences in modern professional life, the value of neurodiversity, the nature vs. nurture debate in child development, and how psychedelics could be beneficial in mental health treatment. Did you set out to create a specific space for psychology in your magazine or did this happen more organically?

Thanks. I’m lucky enough to know a lot of interesting researchers (such as yourself) mainly through online networks such as Twitter and have simply been lucky in attracting many interesting submissions. I think I just created a space for unusual viewpoints — but because my own education has been in psychology, and I know several academics in that area, I guess there has been a positive feedback loop that has encouraged this focus.

Quillette has received high praise from some very influential scholars and public intellectuals. This is impressive considering that there is a dizzying number of online magazines, podcasts, blogs, and vlogs focused on politics, science, and social life. What do you think you are uniquely tapping into that has captured the attention of influential thinkers?

Yes, it’s been very humbling to have such support. I think that we are simply offering up an alternative to the blank slate view of human nature that appears to be dominant within the media ecosystem.

The blank slate view, which is the idea that who we are is entirely or predominantly the product of culture and socialization, is very common in left-leaning media. And left-leaning media also happens to provide most of today’s science journalism. It’s kind of ironic, because the convergent evidence coming out of evolutionary psychology, biology, behavioural genetics and neuroscience that falsifies this blank slate view is simply incontrovertible at this point, but most of the media, and even the popular science media keep clinging to it. At times it’s just embarrassing.

Another factor is that although conservative or libertarian magazines are less wedded to blank slate dogmas, they nevertheless do not give a lot of space to science journalism. So there is a gap in the market for data driven, scientifically literate commentary that does not conform to an outdated view of human nature. Quillette has just run with this.

Have you faced any serious backlash for publishing diverse perspectives on politically charged and socially sensitive topics?

In my personal life, no, not at all. I haven’t lost any friends and I’ve only gained new ones. I live in Australia which has both drawbacks and advantages. One of the drawbacks is that there isn’t a very strong intellectual culture here, but one of the advantages is that people are much more chilled out about politics. Politics doesn’t take over people’s lives here, and it’s very normal for people to have friends from across the political spectrum. I really notice a difference when comparing it to the U.S.

That said, Quillette did publish an article on The Google Memo which was received negatively by some, so much so that the website, which was running on minimal infrastructure at the time, became the target of a successful denial of service attack! But thankfully that was resolved, and many people generously pitched in to offer support and donations.

Some of us in the academy are concerned about ideological bias and campus censorship harming academic culture and scholarship, especially in the social sciences and humanities. Quillette has published a number of relevant articles and interviews (including some by and with me). Have these issues influenced your approach to Quillette?  

Absolutely. I have enormous respect for creativity and risk taking. It doesn’t matter what the domain is, whether it is art or science or entrepreneurship, you have to take risks to move culture forward. Local cultures on many campuses are not conducive to risk taking and creativity in all sorts of ways, from over-bureaucratization, to oppressive social and speech norms. So my goal with Quillette is to provide a ‘safe space’ for people, academics or otherwise, who have novel ideas but who might feel stifled by such norms.

Just as an aside, I think the problems within higher education go far beyond left-leaning bias. For example, we rarely give serious consideration to the financial and opportunity costs that young people are burdened with, and how this likely exacerbates economic inequalities. We rarely talk about how universities have abdicated their mission of preserving and transmitting the cultural capital of western civilization. The elite schools in America seem more invested in being finishing schools for the wealthy than in preserving the integrity of their liberal arts courses. Of course STEM education is as vital as ever, but STEM training is only a small part of the higher education system.

So I think universities need to be disrupted somehow, but I’m not smart enough to work out how to do that. But I know that Jordan Peterson wants to develop an online accreditation system for humanities education, which I think is a really good idea.

Thank you for your time. How can interested readers find and support Quillette?

Thanks for having me! You can read us online at Quillette.com, and you can subscribe to our monthly newsletter via our website. You can also support us through patronage on our Patreon page.

Just a final word: one risk is that Quillette will become its own little echochamber. I wish we had more left-leaning writers, particularly writing on issues of class and how scarcity of opportunities and resources may be driving political polarization. I’d love to publish more articles on animal rights, effective altruism and progressive policies that would help young parents at work (I’m a young parent). And I’d love to discover some new writing talent: If you want to write for Quillette email me: claire[at]quillette.com

Stress and the Paradox of Female Happiness

This essay was included in the monograph titled “Gifted Women, Fragile Men” submitted to the European Parliament in March 2017. Read the original essay here.

Since the 1960s women have entered the workforce and have achieved financial independence. It has become socially acceptable to leave unhappy marriages. Through careers, women gain status and enjoy intellectual fulfilment and have less pressure on them to conform to narrow stereotypes of what it means to be a “woman”. The stigma that once existed around free expression of female sexuality has softened, and legislation is in place to protect women from sexual harassment. By dozens of objective measures, women in the West have never enjoyed more rights and have never been more liberated. But for all of this improvement it appears that many women are stressed, tired, overwhelmed and unhappy.

In recent years, psychologists have found that women are much more likely than men to suffer from emotional disorders. In 2013, Oxford Professor Daniel Freeman observed that women were 75 per cent more likely than men to report having depression and 60 per cent more likely to report having an anxiety disorder.

Last year, a team led by a group of researchers at Cambridge also found that women were much more likely to have experienced anxiety, particularly within Anglo and European cultures.2 These results also support a 2009 study by the economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, which found that women reported higher levels of happiness than men in the 1960s, but that this gender gap has now reversed.3 Freeman, a clinical psychologist, noticed a gap in the literature on sex differences in mental health conditions and investigated national mental health surveys taken from the UK, US, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. He found that women are up to 40 per cent more likely than men to develop mental health disorders, with the sharpest discrepancies being in depression and anxiety. Freeman was careful to examine whether women were more likely to report health problems than men, or more willing than men to seek help. In his 2013 book, The Stressed Sex, 1 co-written with his brother Jason, and published by Oxford University Press, the authors conclude that while self-report and women’s help-seeking behaviours may have an impact, they could not solely explain the differences found between the genders. They show that while men suffer higher rates of substance abuse, ADHD and autism, women are bearing the brunt of emotional disorders – and that the rates of these conditions are also on the rise.

In 2016, researchers at the University of Cambridge conducted a systematic review of studies that reported on the proportion of people with anxiety in a variety of contexts around the world.2 They found that women are almost twice as likely to suffer from anxiety as men, and that people living in Europe and North America are disproportionately affected. These results also converge with a study which looked at data stretching over 35 years which found that women’s happiness had declined relative to men’s. In their 2009 paper The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness, the economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers found that women reported higher levels of happiness in the 1960s and were happier relative to men.3 But by 2009, the gender gap had reversed, with men being the happier sex. The decline in female subjective wellbeing was found to cut across both class and race and held true for women of all ages, with children and without. This cross-temporal study raised interesting questions.

A decline in happiness over 35 years cannot be attributed to such things as genetics – the cause must be largely environmental – adding weight to Freeman’s hypothesis that women are the “stressed sex”. Yet there are no simple explanations for these data. The causes of mental illness are complex and there is very rarely one single factor to blame. Psychologists will look at a range of variables in an attempt to understand why a disorder develops, and biological factors, thought processes, social structures and local cultures are all involved. When it comes to anxiety and depression, evidence suggests that the proximate causes of neurochemistry and thinking styles are heavily implicated, and can dovetail to create the conditions in which a disorder arises. Studies have found that women faced with life stressors are more likely to ruminate, while men are more likely to engage in “problem- focused coping.”4 Notwithstanding this finding, however, a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience Research in January 2017 found that while women do ruminate more than men, this is not able to explain the entirety of the marked discrepancy found in rates of depression.5 Which indicates that there must be other underlying causes.

Another trigger of emotional disorders in women, are reproductive events that affect a woman across her lifespan. It has long been known that female sex hormones can trigger emotional instability and that marked changes in hormonal levels can develop into premenstrual dysphoric disorder, postpartum depression and postmenopausal depression.5When a woman is pregnant, the surges she experiences in oestrogen (a 50 fold increase) and progesterone (a 100 fold increase) are intense.

6 These hormonal surges are thought to trigger repetitive thoughts, fixations and impulsive behaviours that can become highly distressing. 6 During pregnancy, the stress hormone cortisol also spikes, as does testosterone, preparing the mother for the vigilance required to protect her newborn. 6 After pregnancy, the drop in oestrogen and progesterone can lead to “hormonal deficiency” which is likewise associated with disruptive emotional experiences.6

Scientists now also know that becoming a mother also has long term effects on a woman’s brain.7 It was recently discovered that when women become mothers, the grey matter volume in regions subserving social cognition is pruned away during the final stages of pregnancy.7 This again, is thought to be an adaptive measure to help themother focus on her highly vulnerable infant. In this context of rearing children,women’s propensity to ruminate – while distressing for the mother – can be also be seen as an adaptation from an evolutionary standpoint. The developmental psychologist Joyce Benenson has suggested that in precarious environments (such as those that would have been shared by our ancestors) women may have evolved to worry about their own health and the health of their children, in order to survive. It is likely that women who were more vigilant about protecting their children from threats were more successful in passing along their genes to successive generations than women who were less vigilant. Therefore this susceptibility for worry may have been selected for, indeed, in her book Warriors and Worriers, Benenson has said that “anxiety is part of what it means to be a woman.”8

There are many biological mechanisms unique to women which may drive women’s propensity towards depression and anxiety. And while rumination may have originally been an adaptation, it is clear that excessive worry is not serving women well in modern western societies. The hypothesis presented in The Stressed Sex – that women are increasingly over-worked, overwhelmed, tired and rushed – remains compelling.1 It may be that women’s own biological predisposition towards anxiety may make them more reactive to stressful life events (such as giving birth) and chronic life stressors (such as working full-time while raising children). And when biological vulnerabilities towards emotional disorders are combined with the increasingly complex and busy lifestyles that most women in the west live, we may have a recipe for a widespread mental health problems.

Some will say the decline in women’s happiness are due to ongoing prejudices against women, structural barriers, and patriarchal oppression. While these issues may be a factor, especially in the context of the unequal distribution of domestic labour, it is clear that the increase in emotional disorders amongst women has arisen in concert with an increase in the amount of hours worked by women outside of the home.2 In the U.S., half of all two parent families have both parents working full-time.9 In most cases, women still do the bulk of the “second shift” when they get home; the child-care and the housework, making lunches, and packing school bags and so on. In survey results collected by Pew Research Center, 56% of working parents said that they found balancing work/life difficult, and that parenting was “tiring” and “stressful”.9

Today, life is a struggle for many middle-class working families, for both men and women. But women are particularly sensitive to social rejection, and anxiety and depression often hit us when we feel as though we don’t measure up. With so many domains to now excel in, it is understandable that women may feel less than adequate for not achieving excellence in all of them. Women make constant decisions about how to parcel out their time most efficiently. And the conflicts between careers and time spent with children as well as relationships and domestic labour are almost impossibleto resolve and create an backdrop of tension in the majority of women’s lives. Making apriority of one area always leaves another to be neglected (even just for a short time). Men too face these challenges, but for women it seems these trade-offs are pressure- cooked. The unending negotiation of conflicting life domains takes an emotional toll.

If we are to take the science of sex differences in mental health seriously, we mustacknowledge that women may be more susceptible to developing emotional disorders in response to stress. At the same time, a cautious approach needs to be taken to ensure that women are not cast as “less capable” than men, particularly in the context of high- pressure careers. Women have worked hard to be taken seriously within the professions and within the public and private spheres, and losing ground in these domains would be extremely regrettable. Nevertheless, we must also acknowledge that significant events in a woman’s life – such as giving birth – are anxiety inducing, and that women need a great deal of support when these events occur. The feminist ideal of “independence” might have to give way to a refocus on inter-dependence, both within families and within communities, if women’s stress levels are to be reined in.

Finally, discussions on this issue must not be stalled by the political sensitivity of the topic and acknowledging scientific data should not be seen as a blow to gender equality.

Recognising that women are stressed, should not precipitate unfair or unequal treatment. On the contrary, recognising sex differences in mental health may actually promote more ethical policies within the workplace, in recognition of the vital work that women do in the home. When women are bearing the brunt of emotional disorders, we must use the best tools in our intellectual toolkit to understand why, and how we can best alleviate them.


1. Freeman, D., & Freeman, J. (2013). The stressed sex: Uncovering the truth about men, women, and mental health. Oxford University Press.

2. Remes, O., Brayne, C., Linde, R., & Lafortune, L. (2016). A systematic review of reviews on the prevalence of anxiety disorders in adult populations. Brain and Behavior, 6(7).

3. Stevenson, B., & Wolfers, J. (2009). The Paradox of Declining Female Happines. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, 1(2), 190-225.

4. McLean, C. P., & Anderson, E. R. (2009). Brave men and timid women? A review of the gender differences in fear and anxiety. Clinical psychology review, 29(6), 496-505.

5. Sundström Poromaa, I., Comasco, E., Georgakis, M. K., & Skalkidou, A. (2017). Sex differences in depression during pregnancy and the postpartum period. Journal of Neuroscience Research, 95(1-2), 719-730.

6. Albert, P. R. (2015). Why is depression more prevalent in women?. Journal of psychiatry & neuroscience: JPN, 40(4), 219.

7. Hoekzema, E., Barba-Müller, E., Pozzobon, C., Picado, M., Lucco, F., García-García, D., & Ballesteros, A. (2016). Pregnancy leads to long-lasting changes in human brain structure. Nature Neuroscience.

8. Benenson, J. F. (2014). Warriors and worriers: The survival of the sexes. Oxford University Press.

9. Pew Research Center. (2015) Raising Kids and Running a Household: How Working Parents Share the Load. Washington D.C.


The XX Factor

The XX Factor

he insistence that gender differences were and are immaterial to the proper functioning of a free society has been a feature of our common conversation since the 1970s. It was the key to “second-wave feminism,” the political and social movement that took women’s liberation beyond issues of suffrage and wages and employment to the question of how a just society orders itself. By the close of the 20th century, however, the insistence that gender differences be treated as inconsequential had ossified into orthodoxy precisely at the moment when the biological sciences were uncovering differences between the sexes that had hitherto been unknown. An ongoing tug-of-war has resulted between scientists who investigate sex differences and activists who oppose such research. This battle over theory has had horrific real-world consequences. The minimizing of sex differences in areas of health and medicine in particular has led to sweepingly harmful and often fatal results, especially for women.

Read more at Commentary Magazine. 

On Meaning, Identity Politics and Bias in the Academy — An Interview with Clay Routledge

On Meaning, Identity Politics and Bias in the Academy — An Interview with Clay Routledge

Meet Clay Routledge, a social psychologist and Professor of Psychology at North Dakota State University. Professor Routledge studies such things as intergroup relations and how people create meaning in their lives. He has over 90 scholarly papers and has authored the book
“Nostalgia: A Psychological Resource.”

I discovered Professor Routledge on Twitter, where he tweets interesting observations about the state of orthodoxy on campus and in the broader culture. I thought it would be useful to capture some of his insights in a more in-depth form — what follows is an interview with Professor Routledge for Quillette.

Hi Clay, thanks for chatting to Quillette. Before we get into other topics, what do you research and how did you become interested in that area?

I mainly study psychological motives. And much of my work is on the meaning motive. A considerable amount of empirical research indicates that perceiving one’s life as meaningful is important for psychological, social, and physical health. People who feel meaningful are happier, more motivated, more productive, less vulnerable to mental illness, better able to cope with loss and failure, and quicker to recover from physical illness. Meaning also reduces the risk of mortality. So finding and maintaining a sense of meaning is of great value. However, life is full of experiences that threaten perceptions of meaning. In addition, as a result of our advanced cognitive capacities, humans are able to ponder existential questions and run mental simulations that can generate anxiety and a sense of meaninglessness.

My research indicates that when meaning is under threat or people are questioning it, they invest in social bonds, personal goals, or cultural beliefs to regulate existential anxiety. These compensatory responses restore a sense of meaning and overall wellbeing.

I became interested in this area during my first year of graduate school. I had just started a PhD program in psychology when the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred. I wondered, how could people methodically plan and execute an attack that involved them purposefully dying? Like all animals, humans are motivated to survive. But humans are also unique in that we are aware of the inevitability of death. We know that we cannot live forever. Therefore, we engage in efforts to feel like we are part of something larger and longer lasting than our finite existence. For some, this involves a religious faith, and often one that promises some form of life after death. Even beyond religion, people seek enduring meaning. This could mean trying to create a lasting work of art or cultural contribution, make an important scientific contribution, or raise children in order to preserve your family line and name. Most of the time, our efforts to find enduring meaning do not contradict our efforts to stay alive. But suicide terrorism and other extreme examples reveal that on occasion people’s motive to survive and motive to have transcendent meaning can conflict and cause great harm to the self and others. Like I said, I had just started a PhD program in psychology so I decided to focus my interest on psychological motives as well as ideology, intergroup relations, and social conflict.

You recently tweeted —

Would you be able to expand on this idea a little?

Every survey reveals that Americans, and Westerners more broadly, are becoming less religious. Religious identification, church membership, and rated importance of religion are all on the decline. Some assume that this means people are becoming more rational and empirical, but there is little evidence to support this view. For one, even as religious belief and identification are decreasing, non-traditional supernatural, spiritual, and paranormal interests and beliefs are increasing. So are beliefs in conspiracy theories and alternative medical practices that are not supported by scientific evidence. Fewer people are going to church, but more people believe in ghosts, that they can make contact with the dead, that the government is covering up evidence of UFOs, that there is spiritual energy beyond the realm of science, and so on. This is not just the case in the U.S. It has also been observed in Europe. But why? Why would people who abandon the religion of their parents turn to other spiritual and magical practices and beliefs?

My research has explored two possibilities. First, religious faith and spirituality are driven, in part, by stable cognitive and personality differences. For instance, research related to the concept of Theory of Mind (ToM) shows that people who are more inclined to imagine the feelings and intentions of others (often referred to as empathizing) are also more likely to be spiritual and religious. This suggests that part of religious belief is related to social cognitive processes, specifically, the extent to which people can – and desire to – imagine the mental lives of others. Individual differences in thinking style also matter. Specifically, people differ in their tendency to rely on intuitive versus rational thinking. Some people like to trust their gut feelings. Others do not. People who score higher on trait intuitive thinking tend to be more religious. Importantly, these are stable traits. Thus, if someone who is naturally cognitively inclined to be a spiritual person turns away from a religious faith for whatever reason, they are likely to turn to some other spiritual practice or belief.

This also helps explain gender differences in spirituality and religiosity. On nearly every measure, women score higher on spirituality and religiosity than men. Women also score higher on ToM empathizing and trait intuitive thinking than men. So, on average, women may be more cognitively inclined to be spiritual. In fact, not only are women more religious and actively involved in church, they are the primary consumers of alternative or non-traditional spiritual products and media. It is important to note that these gender differences are often small. There are certainly women who are not religious at all and men who are very religious. And there are social and cultural factors that also influence religiosity. However, these cognitive differences help explain why the majority of atheists are men and why women generally seem to be more interested in spirituality.

The second reason why the trend of Americans becoming less religious does not truly represent a move away from religious-like thinking gets us back to the meaning motive. Religion and spirituality are powerful sources of meaning for many people. As a result of changing social views and lifestyles, many people, especially young people, are leaving the traditional church. However, many of them appear to be turning to other religious-like interests and beliefs to seek meaning.

For example, in a recent series of studies conducted in my lab, we observed that the established inverse association between religiosity and belief in extra-terrestrial intelligence (ETI; e.g., aliens, UFOs) is partially accounted for by the desire to find meaning. That is, atheists, agnostics, and those who do not identify as religious are more likely than highly religious people to hold paranormal ETI beliefs such as intelligent alien beings are monitoring the lives of humans and that the government is covering-up evidence of their existence. We found that this is because these non-religious folks are more likely to perceive life as meaningless and thus more likely to be actively searching for meaning. ETI beliefs help people feel like humans are not alone in the universe and that perhaps there are godlike beings watching over us.

Michael Shermer summed it up best when he wrote, “ETIs are secular gods – deities for atheists.” Of course, many atheists and skeptics do not hold these beliefs, but our research reveals that just because people do not endorse traditional religious beliefs does not mean they do not have active “religious” minds, particularly when they are searching for meaning. This is just one example. Clearly though, people, especially those who are cognitively inclined to be spiritual, will gravitate to a range of supernatural, paranormal, and spiritual beliefs and interests when grappling with questions and insecurities about meaning in life.

My research in this area also makes another important point. People, particularly nonreligious people, often view themselves as rational and religious people as irrational. But the truth is more complicated. All people rely at least some of the time on intuition and some of the time on rational thinking. Further, people often employ different styles of thinking in different domains of life. When we listen to music, enjoy nature, or feel love, we might be more inclined to turn to intuition, to just enjoy the experience. When we are trying to make an important financial decision, we might be more inclined to engage effortful rational thinking.

This explains why there are, in fact, many scientists who are religious. They engage more rational processes to do their scientific work but feel comfortable embracing more intuitive thinking to explore spiritual questions. In addition, in our research we find that meaning tends to be found using intuitive cognitive processes. In other words, when people are seeking meaning they tend to rely on feelings. They trust their guts. This is one reason why people often turn to beliefs that are not empirically based when they are seeking meaning. Consider Christianity. People don’t say Jesus is in their heads. They say Jesus is in their hearts. Faith is a feeling.  

If you can, tell us more about what the psychology of inter-group relations means for Identity Politics… And considering the state of hyper-polarisation today in the US and elsewhere, what are some important findings to keep in mind from psychology, that might help shed some light on all of this instability?

Identity politics, especially what is going on within the academic left, is strange because it is at odds with much of what we know about intergroup relations. Decades ago, psychological scientists established that dividing people into groups and highlighting group differences leads to in-group bias. It also leads to hostility if the groups perceive themselves as fighting over scarce resources. It is human nature to defend one’s in-group and to be suspicious of and hesitant to trust out-groups. Identity politics makes relations between groups worse because it constantly reminds people of their group identity and what distinguishes them from members of other groups. Experimental research also shows that making people feel like victims, which is common in identity politics and on college campuses, increases feelings of entitlement and reduces prosocial behavior.

Feelings of victimhood are also contagious. This is called competitive victimhood. Research shows that when one group is accused of victimizing another group, it causes members of the supposed victimizing group to perceive their own group as victims. Therefore, a lot of identity politics activism is causing harm to intergroup relations. The key to helping members of disadvantaged groups and improving intergroup relations more generally is to focus on what unites people, not what divides them. We often call this a common in-group identity or a superordinate group identity.

For instance, in the U.S., it is better to highlight that we are all Americans instead of constantly thinking about all the different group memberships we hold. This doesn’t mean we ignore historical or present-day discrimination. We should recognize and stand against discrimination, but the goal should be to advocate for equality because we all share a common humanity, and should thus all be treated with the same dignity and have the same rights. Identity politics is divisive. It encourages feelings of victimhood, a lack of personal control or agency, and distrust of and anger towards different others. The postmodern fields that promote identity politics ignore decades of good research on both what creates conflict and the best ways to reduce it.

Let’s turn to another topic, post-modernism. Do you think that critical theory or postmodernism will ever go away? There have been attempts to discredit postmodernism before (e.g. the Sokal Affair) but nothing seems to work. What should empirically minded academics do to counter the effects of these ideas?

I am not sure it will ever go away. The basic idea has been around in different forms for a long time. Plus, part of the appeal of this kind of scholarship is that it approaches an important point. It just makes a dramatic turn in the wrong direction before it gets there. The important point is that people are biased and this influences scientific work. I and others have written about the problem of ideological bias in the empirical sciences. However, postmodernists horribly misdiagnose the problem. Science isn’t the problem. People are the problem. Scientists are people, so they can be biased. And this undercuts our ability to develop an objective understanding of the world. This means we need to increase our efforts to remove human bias. Postmodernists oddly go the opposite direction. They increase potential bias by rejecting the methods that help reduce bias. They put their faith, and I use the term faith purposely, in subjective human experiences instead of trying to remove subjectivity from research.

If gender scholars, for example, really believe that science is contaminated by a system of patriarchal and colonialist oppression then they should demand more rigor in science, not less. They should fight for increased efforts to remove human bias through more careful research design, instrument development, and data-collection procedures. They should be big fans of predictive research, hypothesis testing, inferential statistics, and replication attempts from independent labs. They should champion all efforts to suppress the extent to which humans can contaminate science with their personal biases and motives.

Instead, they reject empirical methods. They publish autoethnographies which represent the definition of bias because they perfectly confound a research topic with the person writing about it. They conduct qualitative studies utilizing very small samples and procedures that allow all sorts of human contamination. While empirical social scientists are trying to improve our fields by increasing sample sizes, diversifying samples, reporting our methods and procedures in more detail, demanding more statistical reporting, conducting replication studies and meta-analyses, postmodernists are publishing papers involving anecdotal accounts of life experiences. How is that going to tell us anything objective about the world?

I previously discussed the religious mind in terms of cognitive traits. A lot of the postmodern fields have characteristics that are very similar to religion. They are non-empirical. They prioritize subjective feelings (intuition). They also have a religious fundamentalism quality. That is, they are not friendly to those who challenge postmodern orthodoxy, inject morality into their work, ostracize or punish dissenters, and treat certain views as inherently true and sacred. Social science should be based on empirical evidence. It should be distinct from religion. Many postmodernists are blurring the line, in my opinion.

What can empirically minded academics do? They should quit looking the other way and giving their postmodern colleagues a free pass. Most empirical social scientists are on the political left so I think they are often forgiving of their postmodern colleagues because they see them as ideological allies. And many of them are friends because they work together. But academia shouldn’t be treated like a social club or political organization. We should be seeking truth, not protecting or defending our own ideological perspectives or our friends’ feelings.

You’re outspoken about left-leaning bias on campus and even in psychology. Why do you think that it is important to draw attention to this issue? And have you suffered any blowback at all for talking about it?

As I previously noted, ideological bias can influence research and most academics, especially in the social sciences and humanities, are on the political left. This leads to groupthink and reduces the amount of scrutiny certain research receives and the debate it inspires. And it can bias every step of the research process. It can influence the choice of research questions, the way scales or questionnaires are worded, the specific outcomes measured, the decision to publish or not publish results, the amount of criticism the research receives in the peer-review process, the topics of selected research symposia at conferences, what projects receive grant funding, and so on.

Viewpoint diversity helps because we rely on peers to challenge us, to debate our ideas and point out the biases and flaws in our research. In research that does not touch on social or political issues, we often see considerable debate, people offering alternative hypotheses or questioning particulars of the research design and statistical tests. This always improves the quality of the work and helps us get closer to the objective truth. But people seem to go a little or a lot easier on research that touches on sensitive social or political topics, or supports leftist ideology. I have seen this firsthand. I have been at talks where people present very poorly conducted research related to ideas that failed to replicate or were never well-supported to begin with and watched as hardly anyone in the audience offered even the slightest challenge. It is very strange to see well-trained scientists so blatantly ignore fundamental research flaws because they find the conclusion ideologically affirming. This is precisely why we need to make our methods more rigorous, fight for an academic culture that challenges groupthink and prioritizes the pursuit of truth over tribal loyalty, and encourage diversity of thought.

As for blowback, I have received a little, such as the usual white-male privilege accusation. This stuff is right out of the intersectionality playbook. But it is not a rational argument nor does it really bother me. I have done a lot of research related to psychological motives that influence ideology and intergroup processes. I care deeply about combating prejudice and helping people from disadvantaged groups succeed. I just prefer to base my efforts on actual evidence, not partisan politics or unsubstantiated postmodern theories. I am not that worried about the blowback. I am a successful tenured professor and I did not get in this game to win a popularity contest. 

I often think that political correctness just makes moderates and centrists quieter, while making conservatives and authoritarians more outspoken in opposition. Do you think there’s some truth to this? And if so, how do we counter this trend?

Yes. I sometimes get emails or calls from faculty all over the country thanking me for speaking out against leftist bias. They don’t want to publicly say anything because maybe they aren’t tenured or care more about social repercussions than I do. They just want to quietly thank me. Perhaps promoting viewpoint diversity could help. Also, those of us who are willing to speak up should do so because that encourages others to chime in. I also think we need to push back hard against this idea on the left that disagreement equals prejudice or hate. Calling someone a sexist, racist, etc. for simply challenging your view is intellectually dishonest and lazy. It also harms real efforts to fight injustice because it renders these labels, which should be powerful, meaningless. We need to call that behavior out, even if it makes us unpopular.

Thanks so much for sharing your insights and chatting to Quillette. Is there anything else you’d like to talk about or add?

I would add that people on the left should be concerned about the future of their movement. When I look at young people, especially college students, I see leftist students buying into identity politics and victimhood culture. It is an arms race to feel the most victimized. I see a lot of cynicism and negativity, and a lot of efforts to suppress freedom of speech. But young conservative and libertarian groups seem to be more positive and agentic. They seem to be more focused on expanding their movement and listening to different ideas. I am sure the differences are more nuanced than this but what I am seeing often looks like the difference between the Oppression Olympics on the left and the Opportunity Olympics on the right.

Like I said before though, victimhood culture is contagious so my concern is that students on the right will also start going down this path. All students need to resist being seduced by victimhood culture. We need our universities to be places of energetic discussion and debate, not a fight to see who can be the most outraged.

And students, don’t tell people to check their privilege. Think of all the ways you are privileged. You get to pursue a university degree, something most of the world does not have access to. Consider the fact you are alive a great privilege. After all, none of us lives forever. Don’t be afraid of words or ideas. How are you going to make a difference in the world if you can’t fully engage it? And remember, political identity does not make someone a good or bad person. Good people can disagree. The world would be a boring and not particularly innovative place if we all thought the same way on every issue.


To discover more about Professor Routledge, find his scholarly papers here, and his website here. He tweets @clayroutledge.

This interview was originally published at Quillette.

Interview with Debra W. Soh, Sex Neuroscientist

Interview with Debra W. Soh, Sex Neuroscientist

Meet Debra W. Soh, a sex researcher and neuroscientist in Toronto, Canada.

I learned about Debra through reading her LA Times op-ed on the futility of gender neutral parenting. I got in touch with Debra because I wanted to learn more about her field of sex neuroscience, her own research and her thoughts on studying sex differences in the brain.

Because the study of sex and sex differences is often fraught with political roadblocks, I also wanted to get a picture of how a neuroscientist-sex researcher approaches some of these contentious issues.

Hi Debra, thanks for chatting to Quillette. Can you briefly tell us who you are — where you studied, who was your supervisor and what made you interested in neuroscience, in particular sex neuroscience?

I am a sex researcher at York University in Toronto and I write about the science of sex for several media outlets, including Playboy. For my PhD, which I just defended, I worked with Dr. Keith Schneider, who has pioneered new methods in high-resolution fMRI and is the Director of the University of Delaware’s Center for Biomedical and Brain Imaging, and Dr. James Cantor at the University of Toronto, who is a world expert in the brain imaging of pedophilia.

I remember opening up a textbook during my first neuroscience course as an undergraduate student, seeing images from an fMRI study, and thinking it was incredible. I decided to pursue neuroscience in grad school and had the opportunity to do a placement in sexology as part of my Master’s degree. That’s how I got hooked! And I haven’t looked back.

Tell us more about your specific research area — what do neuroscientists look at when looking at paraphilias?

We’re trying to understand, from a biological perspective, why people are into what they’re into sexually. Neuroscientists will look at the structure and function of the brain to see if there are differences between people with paraphilias and those without.

Paraphilias were once thought to be learned behaviours, but more recent research suggests there may be a neurological component to them; that to some extent, they are hard-wired in the brain and immutable. This completely changes our understanding of how and why they come to be.

Which paraphilias or sexual behaviours are the most interesting to neuroscientists?

They’re all really interesting — I’ve heard of pretty much everything out there! And brain imaging has done a lot to help us understand basic human sexuality, sexual orientation, and sexual arousal.

In my line of work, I use four types of brain scans, including structural and functional MRI and diffusion tensor imaging, to look at paraphilic hypersexuality. These are individuals who have very many paraphilic interests in addition to problematic sexual behaviours, like excessive masturbation, problems with their porn use, and serial cheating.

How do you define excessive? Is it when it interferes with work, relationships or causes personal distress? Or is there another definition that is out there?

Yes, that’s it exactly. “Excessive” sexual behaviours are defined as behaviours that cause an individual distress, impairment in their day-to-day functioning, and/or harm to themselves or their partners. Hypersexuality isn’t recognized as a diagnosis in the DSM-5 (psychiatry’s “Bible”), and so those are the criteria we usually use when defining it.

What are some common misperceptions that the public have about your research?

I think some people may not understand the value of human sexuality research, or it makes them uncomfortable. In this case, I will usually ask the person why we wouldn’t want to understand something so fundamental to our being, and why it should be taboo or considered off-limits.

By understanding “typical” sexuality, we are better able to understand atypical interests and behaviours, and vice versa.

If I studied birds, no one would have any reservations asking me about my work or talking about it in a public place. I don’t think it should be any different when it comes to discussing sex, especially when it’s in the context of scientific research.

You recently wrote an op-ed for the LA Times called the Futility of Gender Neutral Parenting, where you touched on the science of sex differences and which resonated with a lot of readers. I also noticed that the Journal of Neuroscience Research just came out with a special edition devoted entirely to the topic of sex differences in the brain. Do you think that this research is important? And what do you think of the terms “neurosexist” and “neurotrash” which are sometimes used to describe such research?

I think the subtitle of the special edition says it all: Acknowledging sex differences in neuroscience is “An Issue Whose Time Has Come.” The topic of sex differences in the brain is extremely important, as is the corresponding research, because they have important implications for our health and wellbeing. The denial of these differences, and thereby science, is harmful and damaging.

Part of the problem is that those touting the “there are no sex differences” point of view are shouting the loudest. As I wrote in my op-ed, the no-sex differences crowd were very encouraged by a recent study which found that you can’t tell male and female brains apart. This study got a lot of press and a lot of exposure. But a team of researchers re-analyzed the exact same brain data from that study — and they were able to tell those brains apart 69-77% of the time. Another study used higher-resolution neuroimaging data and was able to tell with 93% accuracy. But these studies didn’t receive the amount of publicity the first study did.

There is a large and longstanding body of research — thousands of studies — showing the effects of prenatal testosterone on masculinizing the brain, not to mention all of the other ways research has shown that men and women differ: brain structure, cognitive function, functional activation, personality, etc.

Sex differences have nothing to do with gender equality. I understand where people are coming from in that they fear these differences will be used to justify female oppression. But instead of distorting science, we should be challenging why female-typical traits are seen as inferior and undesirable in the first place.

You’ve stated before that talking about sex differences doesn’t make one sexist. I agree. Do you think that the fear of “neurosexism” is slowly going out of fashion, or is it still a prevalent concern within neuroscience?

It’s still a concern. And it’s a concern because this is a case of a political agenda attempting to silence legitimate science. I think it’s important that we speak up against it.

It’s become controversial to talk about biology. People think you’re sexist if you agree that there are biological sex differences. We should never be afraid to speak the truth about facts or science, but that’s the direction we’re heading in.

Are there other political roadblocks that obstruct your research? For example, is funding hard to come by? Do religious conservatives obstruct research into paraphilias in any way?

It can be difficult to obtain funding for sex research due to the political roadblocks you mentioned, but I’ve been lucky being in Canada. The political climate here is much more conducive to the kind of work I’ve been doing.

Finally, what advice would you give to young people who are thinking about having a career in neuroscience and sex neuroscience in particular?

Get a strong background in research methods and sexology. Needless to say, neuroscience is a burgeoning field. In the ten years that I’ve been doing this work, I’ve seen huge strides forward, which are both exciting and inspiring.

As for sex research, I would say definitely do it, and don’t listen to people who may try to dissuade you. Our work, by nature, is controversial and political and everyone has an opinion about it, whether it’s based in fact or subjective opinion. Surround yourself with people who are supportive of what you do.

Sex research is unfairly stigmatized. I have had many people say to me, once they’ve found out what I do, that they would have loved to study sex in university, but the topic was too taboo. This is unfortunate — sexology deserves respect as a science, and my colleagues are doing amazing work.

Thanks for joining us Debra! Where can we find your writing?

I write a weekly sex science column for Playboy called Hard Science (which is safe for work). It comes out every Wednesday. One of my recent columns was about the scientific reasons why sex addiction is not recognised as a medical disorder.

I also write for several other media outlets, including Scientific American and the Globe and Mail, and I tweet the links to my pieces as they come out. If readers are interested in following my work, they can find me @debra_soh.


This article was originally published at Quillette.

Motherhood on Campus and at Work

Born in the 1980s, my generation has grown up hearing from our elders that gender is a fiction. “Men and women are the same,” my humanities lecturers taught me. “To romanticize motherhood is to do women an injustice,” we’re told.

Parenthood for women, we learned, should be the same as parenthood for men. It should be optional, and it should be delayed. And if we opt-in, home duties should be delegated fifty-fifty, after some careful negotiation. This is the ethical, progressive way to start a family.

Millennial women of a certain class have grown up internalizing these messages. We heed the lessons of our foremothers. We know that whatever maternal urges we may have, they have to wait. And there is nothing inherently “female” about care-giving, anyway. If we think there is, it is because we have been brainwashed by dominant social norms.

But what if reality were not so simple?

What if the notion that gender is a fiction—(that psychologically, physically and emotionally, men and women are pretty much the same)—actually hinders some of the changes that would make life better for a great deal of women?

When Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique in the early ‘60s, she had already gone through early motherhood, and she had already established herself as a freelance journalist. She urged unfulfilled housewives (or mothers) to experience the dignity of paid work, but in her narrative, there was no question of ever having to make a choice between the two.

Since Friedan’s seminal text, paid work has been the feminist prescription for the problem with no name. And this prescription—in concert with a free-market system—has revolutionized all Western liberal economies for the better. Countries that have not legislated for equal opportunities for women flounder in economic mediocrity. So in 2014, women’s participation in the economy is more than an issue of feminine identity or middle-class self-actualization. Our progress depends on it. If a society handicaps a woman’s ability to generate social or economic capital, the society is handicapping itself.

It turns out, however, that combining work and motherhood—particularly early motherhood—is not so easy. Women must engage with the workforce (and higher education) on men’s terms. That is, we must prove that we are capable of economic or intellectual productivity during our peak childbearing years. It is an emotional and physical feat not expected of men.

This challenge affects women of all races, classes, and backgrounds who have, or want to have, children. Even for women who work and study on university campuses, which are the home of the purportedly progressive gender-studies departments, this challenge finds no amelioration.

Legal scholar Mary Ann Mason, in Do Babies Matter? (2013), points out that in the U.S., pregnancy and childbirth are the biggest contributors to female drop-out rates in grad-school and post-doctoral positions. Married mothers are 35% less likely to gain tenure-track positions than their male counterparts, while single women without children are almost as likely as men to gain tenured jobs.

Despite these facts, when it comes to gender gaps in income, political representation, and more, we tend to focus most of our attention on sexual harassment and implicit sex biases. But if we were to direct our efforts to what the empirical evidence suggests is the most pressing concern for women—family responsibilities—we might make more progress towards leveling the playing field. U.S. workplaces could start by offering paid parental leave, which would help them retain talented, experienced women in their workforce (as well as helping those women fulfill their responsibilities as mothers). And beyond the first year following child-birth, research shows that women’s overwhelming preference is to work part-time, while having access to affordable childcare. Accommodating these preferences would ensure that more women could participate in the economy without sacrificing their family lives.

Of course, no top-down policy, however well-designed, will solve any problem entirely, and some workplaces cannot afford to provide the benefits that young parents want. Small businesses and start-ups, for example, require around-the-clock dedication. But arguably, public and private higher education institutions are different. Completing graduate school, followed by a post-doctoral appointment, takes many years and can be a long journey. And while education is a profit-driven industry, it also retains a vital public function. Ideally, talented young women who aspire to become academics, but who wish to start their families also, would be able to do so.

It is not unusual for some feminist scholars to argue that making special accommodations for women sets women back. Women shouldn’t be treated any differently from men, and if they are, they’re likely to lose respect. This argument had merit a few decades ago, but for my generation it rings hollow. Apart from a few isolated outposts of sexism, women generally do not have to worry about receiving condescending treatment like they once did. Girls born after second wave of the women’s movement have been raised in egalitarian families with working mothers. We do not know a world in which women’s economic independence is not a reality.

Similarly, for reasons that probably made sense at the time, the women’s movement, historically, was afraid of the family. Earlier feminists who wanted to free women from the kitchen sink had to put family a distant second, to the priority of establishing economic participation.

But in 2014, women’s participation in the economy is a fact of life, and there is no longer an excuse for dismissing children. The desires of the majority of women to combine career and family are legitimate. Some five decades after Friedan wrote, it should not be an impossible or unrealistic task to implement structural changes to help women achieve their dreams.

There is reason for hope, however, that change is on the way, especially in academia. At UC Berkeley, and a handful of other universities, faculty are aiming to support not only doctoral candidates who become parents, but also students. Mary Ann Mason herself has been at the forefront of advocating for student equity at Berkeley and has developed a suite of measures to help campuses become more family-friendly. The new policies include subsidized back-up child-care, and paid child leave for grad students and post-docs. Stopping the tenure clock for one year is becoming standard practice. Moving towards a part-time tenure track for primary caregivers (mostly women), however, will be the change that will ultimately revolutionize campus culture.

Career tracks incompatible with raising young children are inherently anti-social.

While there will always be circumstances in which flexible conditions for parents are not realistic, we must raise our expectations. The current models for our professions were conceived well before women had entered into the workforce. Career tracks that demand so much time and energy from women (and men) that they cannot succeed while raising young children are inherently anti-social. We can do better.

Denying the weight that babies exert on a woman’s time and body is a pernicious and toxic form of sexism. And to acknowledge the importance of babies is not to “romanticize” motherhood: it is simply to be realistic about it. And it is to be fair to our children.

Mothers do not need to be worshipped as inherently life-affirming nurturers. We just need to be seen as individuals whose work at home is important, work that in the long term benefits us all.

And we need to be afforded the flexibility to do our work properly.

This article was originally published on The Family Studies Institute Blog.