Girl, Interrupting

August 20, 2010

It is damn hard to admit you are wrong

And I don’t mean when you get the facts unequivocally wrong like in a pub quiz, you kind of have to say you were wrong when you find out Sylvia Plath wrote the Bell Jar after you claimed it was Charles Darwin.

What is hard to see – really hard to see – is when you only might be wrong. For instance you think X, someone asks you have you thought about Y? which might make you change your mind about X. Lots of us just a) choose to ignore Y, b) spend a long time justifying why really Y doesn’t matter or c) get really angry and argue more about X.

Its the standard criticism people a large portion of the scientific community have about Homeopathy. Practitioners of homeopathy say it works, scientific evidence says it doesn’t. Homeopaths ignore scientific evidence, so the story goes.

What is true is that data is data, data doesn’t lie – but the interpretation of data, and this is what scientists spend, arguably, most of their time doing, is an entirely different matter. Even though we don’t like to admit it, especially in science (because, after all scientists are supposed to be entirely rational), its hard to alter your pet theory when the data doesn’t quite match up, when it is not obvious that you might be wrong.

BUT, even though this is difficult, it is also part of the job. You must to try to weigh the evidence rationally, and when your theory is wrong just say it is wrong.

The Ben Goldacre/Samira Ahmed twitter ‘debate’ is a good example of this – Goldacre said he was wrong, but not without a flood of excuses…
(see here and here)

So Ben Goldacre tweeted that an upcoming news show (which included maths formula, he assumed was not kosher) was ‘bollocks’ on Twitter and invited heckler’s from the Twitter community to reiterate this point. Turns out, he was wrong, so admitting his mistake he tweeted:

BenGoldacre: @samiraahmedc4 humblest apologies, all the outward signs of bullshit were there, and was impossible to tell from PA report. sorry!

and quoting Suw Charman-Anderson:
It was entirely unsurprising that he should see Samira’s tweets and dismiss them out of hand, given the PR industry’s history of producing bunkum formulae to promote their own brands.

Maybe so, we all have reasons why we are wrong, but and here is the point… its a not easy to say what probably should be said. In this case something like – “I was wrong because I didn’t read the evidence and just had a knee-jerk reaction, even though most of my articles are about gathering evidence and in this case I didn’t bother before I reacted” – would have maybe been more appropriate. And more difficult.

Its much easier when you make a mistake to blame it on other stuff, rather than just saying ‘that was stupid, sorry’
I have caught myself doing this, and even with regard to my research, but in my job there is a standard I have to live up to. If I want to be worth my salt as scientist I have to try to read and collect the evidence before I just decide something is crap.

I think this is a good lesson, for lack of a better word, about what ‘evidence-based’ should mean. It means actually listening to the evidence, reading the evidence, before you say anything, even if it is from sources you don’t always respect. Evidence is not about the people or venue its reported in, it is about the evidence. This is not always so easy, but it is an ideal we should strive for.

May 13, 2010

Dumb and Dumber: the mismeasure of women

Oh no here we go again..

Every 5 – 10 years the good old IQ debate comes up…. and usually some minority comes out on bottom, women, African-Americans – yet no one ever asks themselves why is it that White males never come out on bottom, now THAT would be really different.

But nope, women are dumber than men and Professor Richard Lynn has been ‘brave’ enough to say it, after all he probably thinks he is refreshingly just speaking the truth. Prof Lynn says its science – but he concedes women have better spelling skills so they’ve got that going for them – and after a ‘life time’ of research he should know!

Apparently what he doesn’t know is anything about IQ tests – and Binet’s (the inventor of the IQ test) worst nightmare is coming true – he was afraid to publish his results. He invented the test ONLY TO IDENTIFY WEAK STUDENTS WHO COULD IMPROVE, that is it, and he was afraid these investigations would be used to ‘tag’ people for life… which apparently it has 100 years on.

Everyone, and especially Professor Lynn, should take a day off to read Stephen J. Gould’s book The Mismeasure of Man to understand how IQ tests actually work, instead of just repeating these numbers that mean nothing much to anyone, and the world would be a lot better off. The Mismeasure of Man is an entire book on the problems with testing people for things like intelligence (the key being in the title) ranging from Eugenics to IQ testing.

Specifically, Gould writes about the inaccuracies and problems in these tests with a focus on why the statistics can be misleading. Incidentally, the Mismeasure of Man was written partially as a response to the 1994 book The Bell Curve where scientists argued that IQ was a predictor in things like unwanted pregnancy and job success, oh yes and that men are smarter than women.

Prof. Lynn even brought up the point that women have smaller brains! In fact polar bears have bigger brains than humans (even adjusting for body mass) so well maybe they really have the highest IQ, but you don’t see many Nobel prize polar bears – male or female.
Coincidentally, my favourite refutation of brain size was when mathematical genius Gauss was found to have a brain size slightly below average at 3.3 lbs the researchers did note it had more folds than other brains – so in this case size didn’t matter, but only for Gauss, because he was a genius.

Ohh and apparently its genetic, so that must mean that intelligent genes are only on the y-chromosome then, wow! who knew? I guess the Human Genome project folks missed that one – or maybe it was made up of only women scientist who weren’t smart enough to spot it – that elusive intelligence gene.

If you think this argument might be ok because Professor Lynn is a scientist, then why don’t you go and read what ‘scientists’ said about Africans during the heyday of the slave trade, or if you don’t feel a particular worry about slavery, go and read what Hitler’s scientists said about the intelligence of the ‘average Jew” – IN BOTH CASES these scientists were well respected within their community….

But the real issue is why this keeps happening? Why do ‘learned’ folks keep saying things like this?

On the simplest level it is a way of not taking responsibility for disenfranchised portions of society. It is also easier not to redress the balance by simply deciding that women are dumber than men and then as a society there is nothing we have to do about it.

Often when some gender or race is under-represented in an academic field there is no one reason for this. And to be honest in the case of women, this is getting better, either we are overcoming our inherent IQ deficiency, or women and girls are actually being encouraged to participate more in science, which is good. The more the merrier. However, there are also less women in science today because we are still playing catch up, from the 300 or so years science has been a profession.

One of Prof. Lynn’s points is that not many women have won the big science prizes – Nobel, Fields medal in Mathematics or are Members of the Royal Society.

Well why? His conclusion is…. limited intelligence, though he does say women can be ‘above-average’ just not geniuses – I feel better already, so that’s something…

But think a bit more about it – it is true, there are less female Fellows of the Royal Society (FRS) for instance than their male counterparts – but how do you get to be an FRS? – you get to be an FRS by being voted in by other FRS’s. And of course there is no reason to ever think women would be disenfranchised from this by chauvinism, is there? It must just be because women are dumber.

It is also worth mentioning that women, until quite recently, were kept out of academic jobs, as late as the 1950s, and weren’t allowed to actively engage from their male colleagues. The perfect example of this was Rosalind Franklin, who was in part responsible for discovering that DNA was helical – and missed out on the Nobel prize with Watson and Crick because she died very young – wasn’t even allowed to dine or go to the pub with her colleagues as University dining rooms were male only, and her male colleagues chose to go to male-only pubs to discuss science.

However, science doesn’t work usually in a vacuum, so you could almost argue she was more clever by going it alone… (but I don’t really think that is fair either)

But this was in the 1950s – This is 60 years later and this really should be a non-issue – women are in science, women are being encouraged in science, and we should keep doing this, so why the resurrection of the 1950’s issue? What we need to do as a scientific community is stop distinguishing between the gender or race of scientists, I don’t mean in the recruitment phase, I mean in the practising phase – once you are a scientist it shouldn’t matter if you are a woman in your profession.

But this still IS an issue, and partly because people like Prof. Lynn make it an issue and a resurecction of an age old argument still appears in the news. But the best way to kill a stupid issue, is to ignore it, so I shouldn’t even be writing this

I guess true integration for women in science will come when they are referred to as ‘scientists’ rather than ‘female scientists’ and when papers stop publishing silly articles about how women will never be as smart as boys…

and in the meantime, while you are waiting – go and read the Mismeasure of Man. Oh and I’m off to iron my husband’s shirts.

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: