books book reviews

pop science books

reviewed by T. Nelson


The End of Gender

by Debra Soh
Threshold, 2020, 322 pages
reviewed by T. Nelson

F or whatever reason, left-wingers have adopted biology denialism as part of their ideology, bringing them into conflict with science. But considering that we humans have had sex since the day our species came into existence, it's surprising how little we still know about it.

In this book, Debra Soh, a former feminist, gay rights activist, and sexologist / neuroscientist, identifies nine popular myths, starting with ‘sex is a spectrum,’ ‘gender is a social construct,’ and ‘there are more than two genders,’ and gives us a general idea of what mainstream scientists would say on these topics.

There's actually not much science here; mostly what we get is a light discussion of various behavior patterns and syndromes including homosexuality, gender dysphoria, and transgenderism. Mostly she tells us her opinions, which are centrist.

Talking about gender is hard to do without telling us what gender actually is: I'm convinced the word doesn't mean anything at all, except perhaps the division of humans into males and females. But nowadays even saying that is danger­ous. Soh follows the activists' ambiguous usage, sometimes using it to mean sex and sometimes to mean sexually dimorphic behavior patterns.

Soh bends over backwards to avoid offending gay people. This is generally a good strategy, but it can also mean adopting two contradictory opinions simultaneously. For example, on page 102 she says the idea that ‘sexual orientation is a choice’ is a myth unsupported by science, strongly emphasizing the research on prenatal exposure to testosterone, but then admits that some have chosen to become gay because it has become fashionable. She says that saying so is dangerous because it can be used to support conversion therapy, which she opposes:

Returning to whether gender dysphoria should be considered a mental illness, conceptualizing it this way can—and indeed has—given ammunition to those who seek to dismiss transgender people's concerns and rights with claims that they are mentally unwell, don't know what they are talking about, and shouldn't be listened to.

The job of a scientist is to state the truth regardless of whether it gives ammunition to one political side or the other. Denying ideas because they're “dangerous” is what she was supposed to be arguing against.

She criticizes feminists for saying men and women brains are identical, saying it is a sexist idea. She says “there are only two genders” [p. 67] but then talks about “gender equity”—a term used by activists to demand a redistributionist approach to hiring and salary.

So what we have here is someone who trained as a scientist and lived as an activist, and is now somewhere in limbo between these two incompatible lifestyles, and it shows.

One point where we agree is that medical science is headed for a train wreck on the subject of gender dysphoria among children. Left alone, about 80% of them eventually desist and learn to be happy with their original body. But ‘transitioning’ underage children, who cannot give consent, sterilizes them and often ruins their lives because doctors are afraid to try to dissuade them. Doctors in Canada who make the attempt risk losing their license. Sadly, in the absence of courage from adults, little children must be careful about what they say about sex these days.

Most real biologists are dispassionate about these questions and merely resent being told they cannot speak out on the science. Most of them will just avoid ‘sexology’ altogether, ceding it to the activists, who will do advocacy instead [p. 287]:

What good does it do if all of the impartial experts in the field are too terrified to engage with you? In the end, the only researchers willing to study these populations will be those confident that their results won't upset anyone. But what they will be doing at that point will no longer be science.

Most of what Soh writes accords with much of the current research on sex. Her central message is that people deny science because the truth about who we are is uncomfortable. Telling the truth in our society is dangerous, but Soh has more courage than many.

aug 22, 2020


Science Fictions: How FRAUD, BIAS, NEGLIGENCE, and HYPE Undermine the Search for Truth

by Stuart Ritchie
Metropolitan, 2020, 353 pages
reviewed by T. Nelson

I was a little worried when I noticed that the author's CapsLock key had gotten stuck before he even started writing, but this book on the so-called reproducibility crisis was not as bad as I feared.

Bad science, like bad economics or bad sociology, leads to bad decisions. So it's an important issue. In this book, the author tells us there's bad science out there, which is something everyone would agree with. But he also sneaks in some crazy stuff, like J.P.A. Ioannidis's claim, widely cited by anti-science cranks, that most scientific papers are false.

Ioannidis is a sometimes reasonable statistician, but this paper is nonsense. He said if a hypothesis is generated randomly, the chances of it being correct are infinitesimal. Therefore, he concluded, scientists should reject any hypothesis until the probability of chance error reaches some ridiculously small value.

To illustrate, if I invented hypotheses at random I might start with these:

  1. The moon is made of green cheese
  2. The moon is made of Limburger cheese
  3. The moon is made of Camembert cheese
  4. The moon is made of Swiss cheese

If I tested twenty of these, one would come out statistically significant at p<0.05 by chance alone. If I published it, it would be irreproducible. That is Ioannidis's argument. It is unsound because hypotheses aren't randomly pulled out of thin air. Creating a good hypothesis requires careful planning. It means reading hundreds of papers, evaluating what's likely to be correct, and testing it in the lab. Testing takes years and millions of dollars, so only the hypotheses most likely to be true are ever tested.

The author writes [p.101]:

That's the fundamental insight that so many scientists don't seem to grasp: even when there's nothing going on, you'll still regularly get ‘significant’ p-values, especially if you run lots of statistical tests.

Yes, none of us ever heard that using p<0.05 is a bad thing, and no one in science knows anything about Bonferroni corrections. We all just thought we could happily p-hack and get more papers, and no one ever realized that publication bias is a problem.

This kind of reasoning betrays a lack of understanding of science. I don't even trust commercial software: I write my own statistical software to make sure I understand the algorithm before I use it.

Bad science does exist, of course. It's not that the author's examples are wrong (though some are, such as his incorrect claim on page 162 that the microbiome has no influence on brain disorders), but that the cause is not what the author thinks, so his suggestions won't work. If you want to criticize science constructively, as opposed to bashing science from some hidden agenda, getting the cause right is essential.

Science as practiced in universities is oriented toward two things and two things only: getting papers and getting grants. If you listen in on a faculty discussion some time, you'll learn that almost the only criterion for a new project is not whether the idea is important, but whether they can get the government to fund it. No scientist likes that, but scientists are not in charge. Fix institutional greed and you will fix science.

I know one guy who wrote a series of papers in high-profile papers describing a breakthrough result, got a big NIH grant and tenure, and then promptly dropped the entire project and moved on to something else because none of it was reproducible. I almost admire him for gaming a corrupt system. The univer­sity system rewards this—in fact, it demands it—so that is where reforms must start.

As for “predatory journals,” most journals now require scientists pay a fee to get published, which makes them all predators.

It would be welcome to see journals publishing negative or even, on occasion, replication studies and null results. I also like his idea of making science more boring (which was why I went into science in the first place). I've advocated myself for preprints and open publication, and including blog-like comments. And I love the idea of Registered Reports, where the journal agrees to publish your paper, regardless of the result, before you do any actual research, though I doubt it will catch on.

But some of his ideas, such as calling for more oversight, laws requiring pre-registering of experi­ments, and new government agencies to punish scientists for “misconduct” just mean diverting funds from science to administrators. They would make science worse and make bureaucracy bigger.

Bad science is the symptom of a corrupt system. If you want to fix the problems in science, you must change the real problem, not the symptom. That means radically changing how science is funded, published, and rewarded.

Academic scientists are forced to write papers and grants by universities, which have become dependent on government money. If they don't, they're out. So they will do whatever is necessary to survive. First pat the bureaucrats on the head and shush them, and then we'll talk.

dec 12, 2020