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.

Daily Life’s Boy-Bashing Clickbait Reaches New Low

This essay was published on Quillette on August 17, 2016. Read the original article here.

When Daily Life came onto Australia’s media scene in 2012, I used to read it with bemusement, sometimes morbid fascination. About a year after it launched I started blogging in response to some of its articles, but since 2013, I’ve mostly ignored the publication. One gets tired of clickbait.

Tabloid magazines have been around for a long time and yellow journalism dates back to the nineteenth century. Daily Life has certainly not created anything new. It is also understandable that The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age need to bolster their dwindling readership with cheap and easy commentary on the latest “hot topics”, including those that involve gender and feminism. In the context of the disruption caused by the Internet, it is not a scandal that a media company would do this.

Yet since the public relations fiascos of 2014 and 2015, such as Shirtstorm, and the Tim Hunt affair, it’s also increasingly difficult to become animated by gender politics. From where I sit, the culture war is largely over. No-one serious pays any attention to the likes of Clementine Ford or Lindy West. And Jezebel, the blog that launched it all, has just been sold for a meager price — much less than its former value. Confected outrage has become passé.

Another reason not to care about gender politics is due to the fact that many “men’s rights activists” appear to be just as petulant as third-wave feminists. Engaging in the same kind of toxic identity politics and underhand tactics, it can be hard to take their complaints seriously. However, this week, an article was published by Daily Life, which trivialised boys who underperform in school, and while I don’t sympathise with men’s rights activists generally, when articles such as this one are published, it’s hard not to see their point.

In How to help boys do better at school: stop giving them a leg-up in the outside world — boys’ under-achievement in school is blamed on patriarchal privilege. The author, an “education expert,” Jane Caro, writes:

I find it a little hard to get as exercised as many people appear to do about the relatively poor performance of boys at school. Part of the reason I am fairly relaxed about this may be entirely selfish – I have daughters. But part of it is because I cannot help but notice that this lack of academic prowess in no way seems to hold the male gender back when it comes to the world of work.

She then goes onto say:

I can tell you in one word why I think boys do worse than girls at school, and here it is; patriarchy. Think about it. Boys are not stupid, they look at the world and they see that their gender gets a relatively easy ride thanks to patriarchy. They kick back at school a bit because – quite sensibly – they see that they simply don’t need to work as hard to get ahead.

It is quite a remarkable argument. According to the theory, little boys are so tuned into social realities that they calibrate their school effort according to how easy they expect to have it later in life. Any boy capable of this level of abstract reasoning most likely will succeed later in life. But we all know that for most little boys this proposition is fanciful.

Such arguments would make sense if boys who did badly at school actually went on to have impressive careers. But they don’t. Boys who struggle in school often drop-out, find it difficult to gain employment, and often end up at the bottom of the social pile; these boys are also much more likely to come from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds. For any  parent to be unaware of this is surprising. But for an “education expert” to be unaware of these facts is a serious failing.

The tendency of feminist writers to collapse class privilege into gender privilege, without acknowledging that life might actually be hard for men on the bottom, is myopic. Notwithstanding these failures in logic, the article received a warm welcome from its online audience:


The article, and its reception leads one to ask the question — just exactly how did feminist analysis get here? Who decided that it was acceptable to conflate class with gender and to trivialise the struggles of school-boys simply because there are more men on corporate boards than women?

How did it become acceptable for “experts” and writers to give such little thought to real social problems? Hand-waving about the patriarchy is not an analysis. When we know that boys are at much higher risk of ADHD, autism and language delay than girls, it should not be acceptable to place the blame of boys’ underperformance at an imagined sense of entitlement.

It might just be that casual prejudice has become so commonplace that many of us don’t even notice it anymore. Have all the avenues of male-bashing now been so exhausted that it must be extended to children? One would sincerely hope not.

Thiel vs Gawker: Why a Defensive Media is the Real Threat to Free Speech

This essay was published on Quillette on June 1 2016. Read the original article here.

In March this year, Terry Bollea (Hulk Hogan), was awarded $140 million in damages in an invasion of privacy lawsuit against Gawker Media.

Gawker Media is an online media company owned by Nick Denton, based in New York City and incorporated in the Cayman Islands. It is the parent company of several different blogs including the infamous pop-feminist rag Jezebel and the much maligned Valleywag and Kotaku.

Gawker Media has tormented both powerful and not so powerful people for some time now. In 2015, The Daily Beast reported that the online magazine belligerently hounded actor James Franco for years even going so far as to accuse him of being a “gay rapist”.

Less than a year ago, Gawker ran a bizarre expose about a thwarted tryst between an unknown business executive and a male escort. It turned out that the escort had attempted to blackmail the executive. When that failed, he went to Gawker, and Gawker ran the story.

In Hulk Hogan’s court case, details emerged of Gawker’s editor-in-chief Albert J Daulerio mocking a college girl who had begged the company’s editors to remove a video of her being sexually assaulted in a bathroom stall. A deposition of Daulerio was also shown at the trial. Daulerio gave the following testimony:

“Can you imagine a situation where a celebrity sex tape would not be newsworthy?” (asked Douglas E. Mirell, a lawyer).

“If they were a child,” Daulerio replied.

“Under what age?” asked Mirell.



It was also revealed last week that PayPal Founder and Venture Capitalist, Peter Thiel, was bank-rolling Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker the entire time it was running. This was hitherto unknown, even to Nick Denton, who responded to the news by penning a desperate open letter to the billionaire begging him to stop.

Thiel has every reason to disdain the company – its subsidiary Valleywag invaded his own privacy in 2007. But revenge was not the primary reason why Thiel funded the lawsuit. In an interview with the New York Times, he said that he helped Terry Bollea (Hogan) so that it would serve as a deterrent to other rogue media companies:

It’s less about revenge and more specifically about deterrence…I saw Gawker pioneer a unique and incredibly damaging way of getting attention by bullying people even when there was no connection with the public interest.

When the news of Thiel’s involvement broke, Twitter erupted in celebration with #ThankYouPeter briefly trending. In contraposition with the public, however, was the reaction of the media. Never has the disconnect between journalists and ordinary readers been so starkly illustrated, with the same limp and homogenized arguments being published in The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Guardian and even The New Yorker. Each masthead argued the same thing: that Gawker was distasteful – yes – but that a billionaire funding a lawsuit against a media company was “worrisome”, and that the funding of this lawsuit would set a “dangerous precedent”.


Much of the commentary focuses on a hypothetical chill to free speech that the lawsuit might inflict. But this analysis omits a crucial fact. It was Gawker, not Hulk Hogan or Peter Thiel, which struck fear into the hearts and minds of people for years. It was Gawker staff who trawled social media for everyday targets to mock and ridicule. It was Gawker’s CEO Nick Denton who was aware that a trans woman committed suicide after being outed, but ordered his staff to continue outing anyway.

At Gawker’s peak, you could be a regular person, tweet something stupid, and your whole life could blow up. Just ask Justine Sacco, who described “crying her weight in tears” after a badly judged tweet was picked up and published by Valleywag, spearheading a particularly vicious episode of mob justice.

Freedom of speech is not something that belongs to multi-million dollar media companies with offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands. It should belong to everyone. It should have belonged to Justine Sacco.

And while it is certainly nice that columnists at Slate and The Guardian have suddenly discovered that free speech is an important thing, it might also behoove them to remember that free expression is not only threatened by legal actions or government censorship. Historically and traditionally, free speech is most often suppressed by social norms.

Freedom to make observations about the world and articulate them has always been stifled by oppressive conformity. Whether one is living in 17th Century Italy and fails to declare that the world is flat; or whether one lives in 19th Century Germany and says “God is dead,” there will always be things one cannot say.

Ideally, a free press works to expand these boundaries and gently break down taboos through the piecemeal discovery and exploration of truth. Gawker and friends, on the other hand, did the exact opposite. Denton built a business model out of punishing and policing people for not adhering to social norms. And he even invaded people’s private lives to do so.


The lengths to which some writers have gone to defend Gawker’s behaviour casts doubt of whether the industry is capable of recognising unethical or illegal actions in its own ranks.

Will Oremus at Slate wrote that Thiel’s (perfectly legal) funding of Hogan’s lawsuit was itself “proof” that Valleywag was needed. In the same article he wrote that the tactics of Gawker were not actually bullying because “they always saw themselves as punching up”.

In an appalling screed, Marina Hyde of The Guardian wrote that the outing of gay men was a matter of “ethical opinion,” and that Valleywag — while distasteful — provided “much needed irreverence”.

Read enough of these flaccid excuses for bullying from media types and one comes away feeling vaguely sick. The real threat to freedom of expression is not a lawsuit funded by Peter Thiel. It is a vampiric industry that is ready to suck the blood of the public in an effort to cope with its economic stresses.

The media’s response to the Thiel vs Gawker affair has been to make much of Thiel. But the paramount issue is the conduct of the media itself. Journalism fails as a profession when it cannot adequately police itself. Thiel vs Gawker demonstrates the blindness of the press to the unseemly excesses of those within their ranks. The public are disgusted by Gawker, as they were disgusted by The News of the World phone-hacking scandal of the mid 2000s.

Columnists may strike an imperious posture if they wish, and attack Silicon Valley out of resentment. But that won’t do anything to restore the integrity of their profession. If journalism fails to open up its own industry to the same kind of scrutiny that it demands of others, it will not be digital disruption which causes its demise. It will be its own hypocrisy.

How a Rebellious Scientist Uncovered the Surprising Truth About Stereotypes

This post was published on Quillette on December 4 2015. Read the original article here.

The Sydney Symposium

At the back of a small room at Coogee Beach, Sydney, I sat watching as a psychologist I had never heard of paced the room gesticulating. His voice was loud. Over six feet tall, his presence was imposing. It was Lee Jussim. He had come to the Sydney Symposium of Social Psychology to talk about left-wing bias in social psychology.

Left-wing bias, he said, was undermining his field. Graduate students were entering the field in order to change the world rather than discover truths.1 Because of this, he said, the field was riddled with flaky research and questionable theories.

Jussim’s talk began with one of the most egregious examples of bias in recent years. He drew the audience’s attention to the paper: “NASA faked the moon landing – therefore (climate) science is a hoax.” The study was led by Stephan Lewandowsky, and published in Psychological Science in 2013. The paper argued that those who believed that the moon landing was a hoax also believed that climate science was a fraud. The abstract stated:

We…show that endorsement of a cluster of conspiracy theories (e.g., that the CIA killed Martin-Luther King or that NASA faked the moon landing) predicts rejection of climate science as well as the rejection of other scientific findings above and beyond commitment to laissez-faire free markets. This provides confirmation of previous suggestions that conspiracist ideation contributes to the rejection of science.

After describing the study and reading the abstract, Jussim paused. Something big was coming.

“But out of 1145 participants, only ten agreed that the moon landing was a hoax!” he said. “Of the study’s participants, 97.8% who thought that climate science was a hoax, did not think that the moon landing also a hoax.”

His fellow psychologists shifted in their seats. Jussim pointed out that the level of obfuscation the authors went to, in order to disguise their actual data, was intense. Statistical techniques appeared to have been chosen that would hide the study’s true results. And it appeared that no peer reviewers, or journal editors, took the time, or went to the effort of scrutinizing the study in a way that was sufficient to identify the bold misrepresentations.

While the authors’ political motivations for publishing the paper were obvious, it was the lax attitude on behalf of peer reviewers – Jussim suggested – that was at the heart of the problems within social psychology. The field had become a community in which political values and moral aims were shared, leading to an asymmetry in which studies that reinforced left-wing narratives had come to be disproportionately represented in the literature. And this was not, to quote Stephen Colbert, because “reality had a liberal bias”. It was because social psychology had a liberal bias.

Jussim explained that within the field, those on the left outnumbered those on the right by a ratio of about 10:1. So it meant that even if left-leaning and right-leaning scientists were equal in their bias, there would be at least ten times more research biased towards validating left-wing narratives than conservative narratives. Adding in the apparent double standards in the peer review process (where studies validating left-wing narratives seemed to be easier to publish) then the bias within the field could vastly exceed the ratio of 10:1. In other words, research was becoming an exercise in groupthink.


Jussim appears to have had an anti-authoritarian streak since day one. Born in Brooklyn 1955, his family moved to Long Island when he was twelve. He lost his mother the following year from illness, and after that, he lost his father as well, although this time not from illness, but from grief. It was at this tender age that Jussim entered into a life of self-reliance. Ferociously independent, Jussim describes having little respect for, or deference to, authority figures. In high school he says he purposely made life miserable for his teachers, and later he would become an anti-war activist.

In 1975, at the age of 20, he was a university dropout. He did not return again to study until four years later, when he began undergraduate psychology, and it was not until 1986, at the age of 30, that Jussim achieved his first publication. By this stage he was already married with a baby.

Jussim may not have known at this point that he was destined to continue living a life of non-conformity. He was a reformed delinquent and anti-Vietnam war activist. He had his PhD and a publication under his belt. He had settled down. His former life of rabble rousing and trouble making was over.

Or so he thought.

Very early in his career, Jussim faced a crisis of sorts. An early mentor, Jacquelynne Eccles, handed him some large datasets gathered from school children and teachers in educational settings. He tried testing the social psychology theories he had studied, but consistently found that his data contradicted them.

Instead of finding that the teachers’ expectations influenced the students’ performances, he found that the students’ performances influenced the teachers’ expectations. This data “misbehaved”. It did not show that stereotypes created, or even had much influence on the real world. The data did not show that teachers’ expectations strongly limited students’ performances. It did not show that stereotypes became self-fulfilling prophecies. But instead of filing his results away into a desk drawer, Jussim kept investigating – for three more decades.

The Crisis in Social Psychology

Some months after Jussim’s presentation at the 2015 Sydney Symposium, the results of the Reproducibility Project in psychology were announced. This project found that out of 100 psychological studies, only about 30%-50% could be replicated.

The reproducibility project follows in the wake of a crisis that has engulfed social psychology in recent years. A slew of classic studies have never been able to be fully replicated. (Replication is a benchmark of the scientific method. If a study cannot be replicated, it suggests that the results were a fluke, and not an accurate representation of the real world).

For example, Bargh, Chen and Burrows published one of the most famous experiments of the field in 19963. In it, students were divided into two groups: one group received priming with the stereotype of elderly people; the other students received no priming (the control group). When the students left the experiment, those who had been primed with the stereotype of the elderly, walked down a corridor significantly more slowly than the students assigned to the control. While it has never been completely replicated, it has been cited over 3400 times. It also features in most social psychology textbooks.

Another classic study by Darley & Gross published in 1983, found that people applied a stereotype about social class when they saw a young girl taking a math test, but did not when they saw a young girl not taking a math test.5 Two attempts at exact replication have failed.6 And both replication attempts actually found the opposite pattern – that people apply stereotypes when they have no other information about a person, but switch them off when they do.6

In the field of psychology, what counts as a “replication” is controversial. Researchers have not yet reached a consensus on whether a replication means that an effect of the same size was found. Or that an effect size was found within the same confidence intervals. Or whether it is an effect in the same direction. How one defines replication will likely impact whether one sees a “replication” as being successful or not. So while some of social psychology’s classic studies have not been fully replicated, there have been partial replications, and a debate still rages around what exactly constitutes one. But here’s the kicker: even in the partial replications of some of these stereotype studies, the research has been found to be riddled with p-hacking.4 (P-hacking refers to the exploitation of researcher degrees of freedom until a desirable result is found).


When I went through university as a psychology undergraduate Jussim’s work was not on the curriculum. His studies were not to be found in my social psychology textbook. Nor was Jussim ever mentioned in the classroom. Yet the area of study Jussim has been a pioneer of – stereotype accuracy – is one of the most robust and replicable areas ever to emerge from the discipline.

To talk about stereotypes, one has to first define what they are. Stereotypes are simply beliefs about a group of people. They can be positive (children are playful) or they can be negative (bankers are selfish), or they can be somewhere in between (librarians are quiet). When stereotypes are defined as beliefs about groups of people (true or untrue), they correlate with real world criteria with effect sizes ranging from .4 to .9, with the average coming in somewhere around .8. (This is close to the highest effect size that a social science researcher can find, an effect size of 1.0 would mean that stereotypes correspond 100% to real world criteria. Many social psychological theories rest on studies which have effect sizes of around .2.)

Jussim and his co-authors have found that stereotypes accurately predict demographic criteria, academic achievement, personality and behaviour.7 This picture becomes more complex, however, when considering nationality or political affiliation. One area of stereotyping which is consistently found to be inaccurate are the stereotypes concerning political affiliation; right-wingers and left wingers tend to caricature each others personalities, most often negatively so.7

Lest one thinks that these results paint a bleak picture of human nature, Jussim and his colleagues have also found that people tend to switch off some of their stereotypes – especially the descriptive ones – when they interact with individuals.7 It appears that descriptive stereotypes are a crutch to lean on when we have no other information about a person. When we gain additional insights into people, these stereotypes are no longer useful. And there is now a body of evidence to suggest that stereotypes are not as fixed, unchangeable and inflexible as they’ve historically been portrayed to be.8

A Cool Reception

Studying the accuracy of stereotypes is risky business. For many, investigation into stereotypes is tantamount to endorsing bigotry. To understand why this is the case, one has to take a long view of the discipline’s history.

Social psychology arose from the ashes of World War 2. An entire generation had to come to terms with the legacy of the war, and the study of prejudice and authoritarianism naturally captured their imaginations. Gordon Allport, a mentor of Stanley Milgram, conceptualised stereotypes in his 1954 book The Nature of Prejudice as inaccurate, pernicious and unshakeable, and influential in shaping the social world9. From this point onwards, this conception has largely remained unchallenged.

Reactions to Jussim’s findings about the accuracy of stereotypes have varied on the scale between lukewarm and ice cold. At Stanford this year after giving a talk, an audience member articulated a position reflected by many within his field:

“Social psychologists should not be studying whether people are accurate in perceiving groups! They should be studying how situations create disadvantage.”

Jussim has heard this position over and over again. Not just from students, but also colleagues. One might find it surprising that psychology researchers would become so invested in shutting down research they find politically unbearable. But one shouldn’t be.

It is not uncommon for social psychologists to list “the promotion of social justice” as a research topic on their CVs, or on their university homepages. One academic, John Jost at New York University, who argues that conservatism is a form of motivated cognition, runs what he calls the Social Justice Lab. Within the scientific community, the blending of science with political activism is far from being frowned upon. One only has to take a brief look at Twitter to see that scientists are often in practice of tweeting about “white privilege”, “women in STEM”, “structural disadvantage”, “affirmative action”, and “stereotypes”. For many scientists, the crusade to change the world is seen as part of one’s job description.

Jussim has weathered aloof, and at times openly hostile attitudes to his work for virtually three decades. In an email to me earlier in the year, he wrote that he felt like his work life has been lived in solitary confinement. It is possible that Jussim’s citation count – or impact factor – has been artificially suppressed. And for renegade academics such as Jussim to get published, they often must resort to sugar-coating and camouflaging their results, leaving important findings out of journal titles and abstracts.

Yet he points out that despite the hostility towards stereotype accuracy, he has been well treated by social psychology – having been given an American Psychological Association Early Career Award in 1997 – and being cited by his peers over 6000 times. Jussim also points out that while doing research that breaks taboos and undermines political narratives is hard, it is not impossible. Ultimately the scientific method wins.

It is too early to know how research into stereotypes will unfold in the future. And we do not know yet if social psychology will ever be able to achieve ideological diversity, or realistically address its left-wing bias. What is certain, however, is that despite producing work that has been unwelcome and unpopular, Lee Jussim has remained a faithful servant to the scientific method. Even in the face of great personal costs.