The truth has got its boots on: an evidence-based response to James Damore's Google memo
August 19, 2017 9:43 PM   Subscribe

The truth has got its boots on: an evidence-based response to James Damore's Google memo [via mefi projects]
Mefi's own sciatrix drops science on Damore's unlistening head. Long, dense, and (from where I'm sitting) pretty darn definitive.
posted by Joseph Gurl (95 comments total) 285 users marked this as a favorite
 
OMG! Thank you! Can't wait to dig into this!
posted by The Toad at 10:15 PM on August 19 [3 favorites]


[ this is awesome ]
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 10:26 PM on August 19 [2 favorites]


Brava!
posted by orangutan at 10:26 PM on August 19 [2 favorites]


Thankyouthankyouthankyou. As a woman technologist this is so personally and professionally helpful. Also, I love that this post will come up any time someone searches the tag #dudebro.
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 10:35 PM on August 19 [11 favorites]


It's been awe-inspiring to see this come together over. Thank you sciatrix!
posted by zachlipton at 10:50 PM on August 19 [3 favorites]


Thank you, sciatrix. I'm so glad somebody did this.
posted by mrmurbles at 11:19 PM on August 19 [2 favorites]


That was amazing. I've been in need of something like it for a long time. I'll be handing it out like candy.
posted by klanawa at 11:41 PM on August 19 [5 favorites]


I am approximately 1/5 of the way through and this is AMAZING. The writing is so clear and engaging and I'm learning so much.

Thank you for writing this, sciatrix, and thanks for posting it, Joseph Gurl!
posted by kristi at 11:53 PM on August 19 [6 favorites]


Thank you.
posted by rtha at 11:56 PM on August 19 [1 favorite]


Now that is good sciencing.
posted by fallingbadgers at 12:02 AM on August 20 [2 favorites]


That's superhero levels of work and achievement, and in such a compressed time-frame. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
posted by pseudonymph at 12:18 AM on August 20 [9 favorites]


The only shitty part here is that sciatrix should have been paid at least $25/hour and instead wound up at or below minimum wage :(

I hope it was fruitful for sciatrix--it will certainly be so for the rest of us.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 12:23 AM on August 20 [14 favorites]


I really love the clear, companionable tone of this all.
posted by corb at 12:35 AM on August 20 [2 favorites]


Dear Google: Please pay sciatrix for rebutting Me. Damore's claptrap at Mr. Damore's (former) hourly pay rate.
posted by benzenedream at 12:38 AM on August 20 [46 favorites]


The truth is often much more complicated than the glib would prefer.

Okay, in addition to the 2,316 other "ZOMG this!" moments I'm sure I haven't even gotten to... that one.
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 12:41 AM on August 20 [2 favorites]


Wow. This is fantastic.
posted by Literaryhero at 12:58 AM on August 20 [1 favorite]


Scatrix, that was an incredible piece of work. I'm spreading this around to my friends, including some who work at Google.
posted by happyroach at 1:01 AM on August 20 [5 favorites]


THANK YOU.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 1:38 AM on August 20 [1 favorite]


OH my god, thank you for this post.

The Google memo was really unsettling to me because it was so in line with what I had learned during my psychology undergrad, it felt like an entire section of my brain was under attack without recourse. I just avoided the subject altogether, I couldn't really handle the accusations of the subject matter being unscientific, as much as I couldn't handle the fact that such information was being used for such an incendiary way.

My evolutionary psychology professor was my favorite professor during my psychology undergrad. She kept emphasizing the difference between what is and what ought to be", and sections about gender became exercises in how to reconcile theoretical knowledge with your day to day. The thing about psychology is that it is made up of many churches that are at odds with each other, and she, more than my other professors, taught me how to refine and combine the sometimes contradictory principles that each field offered.

I've always wondered if it was because she knew that her field was one of the weakest under scrutiny. I've always wondered how she really felt when she encountered disparaging differences between the sexes.

I've always kept to heart that there are things that are true, but they don't affect how things ought to be. The weakness of this approach to life is that cognitive dissonance is tiring, and you're prone to preferring the sides you just know more about. I finally feel like I have a rebuttal to myself.
posted by weewooweewoo at 1:58 AM on August 20 [16 favorites]


Kudos. I'll be forwarding this to the head of my organization, who instructed me to put content on our website about how boys prefer tech to socializing.
posted by oheso at 2:03 AM on August 20 [11 favorites]


Thanks for linking this, Joseph Gurl. Thanks so much for writing it, sciatrix. I'll be forwarding this around to people who need to see it.
posted by mordax at 2:23 AM on August 20 [1 favorite]


Sciatrix, thanks for doing this! That is one impressive list of citations -- the ones I am already familiar with (like the Claude Steele papers, the WEIRD people, and the fMRI salmon) have me looking forward to reading others.

And from now on whenever I read about a face-eating leopard I'll be looking forward to voting for the Platypuses-Eating-Noses Party instead.
posted by Killick at 2:41 AM on August 20 [2 favorites]


The only shitty part here is that sciatrix should have been paid at least $25/hour and instead wound up at or below minimum wage :(

From deep within the Medium piece:

"If you’ve really enjoyed this piece and you want to show the love, I would not object to a coffee."

Adding to the next scientific experiment, of seeing how much sciatrix's sleep patterns can be disturbed by being bought lots of cups of coffee :)
posted by Wordshore at 2:41 AM on August 20 [22 favorites]


Amazing work, but it still galls that this is bloody necessary in 2017.
posted by MartinWisse at 2:53 AM on August 20 [14 favorites]


"people who have suffered tragic accidents via plastic surgeon or nose-eating platypus attacks."

This is a malicious slur upon Australian fauna; I don't believe the author could cite a single example of monotremic nose-eating. Spiders, snakes, stonefish and sea lice I will cop to willingly; I will even stipulate that male platypodes are venomous; but I will defend their antigustatorial nasality to the end of my days.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:25 AM on August 20 [18 favorites]


Excellent work – this is why I come to Metafilter, best of the web indeed.
posted by bouvin at 3:33 AM on August 20 [3 favorites]


Sci, this is hugely important work. Thank you for doing it.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 3:40 AM on August 20 [4 favorites]


homogeneity of effect sizes was not rejected, x 2 (27) = 33.54, ns, indicating that variation in effect sizes across studies could be attributable entirely to sampling error.

Lol owned

Great piece. The bit from Dr. Fine's book at the end is a perfect punchline. Thanks for the extensive references and condolences on your 'vacation'!
posted by anthill at 4:13 AM on August 20 [6 favorites]


So amazing! I'm going to do my bit to get it shared through my part of the scientific community whose response to the letter has been a bit...muted?
posted by hydrobatidae at 4:50 AM on August 20 [3 favorites]


This is a malicious slur upon Australian fauna; I don't believe the author could cite a single example of monotremic nose-eating. Spiders, snakes, stonefish and sea lice I will cop to willingly; I will even stipulate that male platypodes are venomous; but I will defend their antigustatorial nasality to the end of my days.

So platypi sea-lion?
posted by acb at 4:54 AM on August 20 [1 favorite]


among the many wondeful things about this: Thanks especially to Stacey Becker, Gautam Surya, Christopher Pound, and Cary Elwes, whose comments on this piece as it was forming have been invaluable.

"You mean you wish to surrender to me? Very well, I accept."
posted by leotrotsky at 5:02 AM on August 20 [11 favorites]


This was an amazing and heartening read. Thank you so much.
posted by theBigRedKittyPurrs at 6:10 AM on August 20 [1 favorite]


YES. I've been waiting for someone to take this exact approach ever since Damore's memo surfaced. Excellent work!
posted by jklaiho at 6:14 AM on August 20 [1 favorite]


Thank you thank you for your hard work on this sciatrix! I haven't read all the cites yet, but this is such a useful and interesting and well-written piece of work...

My favourite part was the bit where you said people are equally good/skilled at experiencing empathy, and the difference was if they could be assed or not. (I think you phrased it as 'difference in motivation' - I summarise!).

And thank you Joseph Gurl for posting - I would've missed this otherwise because I've taken a short media/news break.
posted by mgrrl at 6:21 AM on August 20 [5 favorites]


I have started, but not finished it yet, but wanted to say that the portion I have read so far is very well written. I hope this reaches the audience it deserves.

I think this was a necessary piece to have written, but it also continues to trouble me how the practices of journalism and sometimes academia sometimes amplify hostile and bigoted messages even while refuting them. The refutation still has to happen, so I don't see a solution, but I wish we had better ways as a society of turning the volume of those messages down rather than letting them set the terms of the discussion.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:38 AM on August 20 [3 favorites]


This is fantastic.
posted by Mchelly at 7:04 AM on August 20 [1 favorite]


If anybody comes to the thread thinking that they've got a drive-by comment that refutes the article, I'd suggest haha don't. Somehow the mountain of hot takes and "now let's get a paragraph from a contrarian scientist" that we saw in the previous thread failed to add up to much.

Besides, sciatrix will have enough of that to deal with from Twitter idiots.

Instead read, think, grow, and buy her a coffee or ten.
posted by clawsoon at 7:10 AM on August 20 [10 favorites]


OMG I love this! Meticulously cited opinion pieces make the scientist in me so happy.

Though calling this an opinion piece when it is the flippin' truth feels like I'm shortchanging it a little.
posted by Zalzidrax at 7:18 AM on August 20


among the many wondeful things about this: Thanks especially to Stacey Becker, Gautam Surya, Christopher Pound, and Cary Elwes, whose comments on this piece as it was forming have been invaluable.

Son of a--that's what I fucking get for not double-checking my names, that is not the right last name and apparently my exhausted asshole hindbrain did a stupid. I've fixed that now, at least...

this is such a persistent problem with me, and is one of the biggest reasons my feet wind up in my mouth...
posted by sciatrix at 7:23 AM on August 20 [12 favorites]


And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how I came to write a paper with both Paul Erdos and Kevin Bacon.
posted by biffa at 7:42 AM on August 20 [14 favorites]


Sciatrix:

You are a really fantastic explanatory writer and I hope you will consider this one of your strengths as you move forward in your career. In the sciences, we don't generally pay enough attention to how important this skill is and I think you are way ahead of your colleagues in this respect.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 7:45 AM on August 20 [36 favorites]


This is very good, and I hope the people who claim to be neutral and care only about The Science take a deep drink.
posted by fleacircus at 8:01 AM on August 20 [1 favorite]


I think sciatrix and I have argued about the general usefulness of the super fricking technical fields in human biology before, but this is damned good
posted by hleehowon at 8:33 AM on August 20 [1 favorite]


*applauds*

Fantastic! Well done, sciatrix. Thank you!
posted by zarq at 9:00 AM on August 20 [1 favorite]


Go sciatrix! Nicely done.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:05 AM on August 20 [1 favorite]


And I got my first troll from posting it. Well I hope my fellow scientists saw it too.
posted by hydrobatidae at 9:08 AM on August 20 [1 favorite]


I posted a link to Hacker News for all the good that it might do. While generally a fine site for tech related news, it does have its lamentable blind spots.
posted by bouvin at 9:13 AM on August 20 [2 favorites]


Thank you, sciatrix!
posted by gingerbeer at 9:33 AM on August 20 [1 favorite]


This is really great and I echo that it was very clear and well written. I did poorly in Statistics and even I easily understood those points. Thanks!
posted by kerf at 9:53 AM on August 20 [1 favorite]


bouvin: “lamentable blind spots” is painfully true for topics like this one. It never fails to amaze me how many of these “I love science!” guys basically go full creationist as soon as the topic gets too close to home.

(The first comment was predictable: read through that guy's history and note how little evidence is required for the “maybe it's just biology” position)
posted by adamsc at 9:57 AM on August 20 [9 favorites]


Excellent and very educational! The bit about adaptationism I found especially interesting as a solid philosophical deficiency of evopsych compared to other areas of evolutionary biology.

However I do take slight issue with this part:
Please give me more in-depth books that dig into more detail on this topic!
Fine, Cordelia. 2010. Delusions of gender: how our minds, society, and neurosexism create difference.
Jeez, sorry for asking. And please don't call me Cordelia.
posted by valrus at 10:27 AM on August 20 [15 favorites]


Wow! Well-written and comprehensive. Thank you very much.
posted by MovableBookLady at 10:35 AM on August 20 [1 favorite]


What a great read sciatrix, and thank you for posting this Joseph Gurl.

Sciatrix, your mind is sharp, your reasoning clear, and your assertiveness is on display as a clear virtue for all the women who were harmed by Damore's writing. Although I know, both from the abundance of sources cited in this essay and from the experiences of the women in my life that you will suffer some backlash from this, I hope it also opens doors for you.
posted by thebotanyofsouls at 10:54 AM on August 20 [12 favorites]


Is it OK to post this in places like /r/jamesdamore?
posted by Coventry at 11:02 AM on August 20


Sciatrix, I am someone who really struggles (but is trying to get better!) at understanding science, and this was so incisive and accessible that I really really got it. I've been dithering about taking an adult learners class to improve and this has given me the push I needed. Many thanks to you.
posted by threetwentytwo at 11:11 AM on August 20 [4 favorites]


Really heroic work here going through all this literature! The critique of adaptationism is something I think a lot of non-evolutionary biologists (even some molecular biologists tbqh) don't think enough about in this context, and the point about effect sizes is also incredibly important (I actually didn't realize the effects were that tiny in the personality psych comparisons).

And lmao forever about giving vervet monkeys a toy frying pan. You know, for all those gas ranges on the savannah.
posted by en forme de poire at 11:14 AM on August 20 [3 favorites]


Coventry, it's been posted there already. I'm sure everyone will be shocked to find out the good citizens of Reddit are taking any excuse to dismiss it out of hand.
posted by valrus at 11:18 AM on August 20 [4 favorites]


Go nuts. As far as I'm concerned, they've already found it anyway--I have a number of hits coming in from Penny Arcade and Reddit as it is. So this is my blanket permission to share this wherever you think people will find it useful. I am not intending to do a ton of handling responses personally unless they're interesting in some way, so I'm not concerned so much about battening down and cheerfully deleting anything that doesn't meet the "know your sources and, if you're going to argue with me, show your work" standard. That's how I am intending to handle responses, anyway.

Now I've done with the morning's frantic last-minute edits (the footnotes link to the bottom notations now! the reading time is 90 minutes, not the making-me-irrationally-uncomfortable previous time of 88 minutes!), I have the bandwidth to respond with more detailed things besides panicking blanket apologies. So hopefully that'll be showing up from me later today.
posted by sciatrix at 11:18 AM on August 20 [32 favorites]


It's only one part of the paper, but I love the commentary about Evo Psych and is tendency to come up with conclusions and then fit the data to match. I have seen so many dodgy "just-so stories" where cultural behavior is attributed to biology- Evo Psych isn't quite a modern version of Phrenology, but it's not for lack of trying.
posted by happyroach at 11:36 AM on August 20 [17 favorites]


Table of contents also posted by sciatrix, for easier reference. Maybe add to the post?
posted by halifix at 11:44 AM on August 20 [4 favorites]


This is great! I read half so far, donated, and will post this up socially after I finish reading it. Thanks again.
posted by puddledork at 11:58 AM on August 20 [1 favorite]


This is just outstanding. I was already aware of enough of the flaws in the original argument to reject it out of hand. But I have greatly enjoyed reading this piece and learning *so much* more. You've done an outstanding job, congratulations! Definitely more productive than the research I did last week! And please do take to heart the comments from above that science communication is one of your strengths - I'd read your book about barnacles or anything else = P.
posted by Buckt at 12:23 PM on August 20 [3 favorites]


For a similar, book-length look at the difficulties of teasing out biology vs cultural influences on various 'human nature' issues such as gender (and much more), see Jesse Prinz' Beyond Human Nature.
posted by girl Mark at 12:24 PM on August 20 [1 favorite]


This is excellent. Thank you, sciatrix!
posted by steady-state strawberry at 2:27 PM on August 20 [1 favorite]


I just took a glance at r/jamesdamore, and while it is posted there, I think it's worth going in and upvoting. Right now it's not all that visible.

I don't know if these kinds of battles (upvoting/downvoting in biased spaces) are worth fighting, but I retain hope that some kids will at least encounter it and find that there is science against this kind of thinking. If you're young enough, and not scientifically literate enough, you might think that Damore's memo actually does have the weight of science behind it.
posted by mrmurbles at 2:57 PM on August 20 [4 favorites]


This is really terrific. I've been hoping to read a rebuttal exactly like this that covered current research; I studied this field in graduate school, but it was a long time ago so I've felt I only remembered enough to be dangerous.
posted by nev at 5:52 PM on August 20 [1 favorite]


This is a really excellent writeup, thanks sciatrix! The biggest surprise for me in this writeup was unexpectedly personal: I was a postdoc in the same lab as Damore while he was there. We never interacted directly (I didn't even know his last name...), and I don't know what specifically he was working on. However, I can comment on what Prof. Mahadevan's lab tends to work on.

A great example of the type of work that goes on in Maha's lab was reflected in this recent metafilter post about egg shape and evolutionary biology. Its based on a recent science paper with maha as a communicating author, and I think it's representative of his interests. He is an applied mathematician interested in how shape and geometry dictate the mechanical properties of a wide range of systems, of which biology is an subset. This means a couple of things:

(1) The lab was full of physicists and mathematicians, so when working on biological problems it was important to listen to biologists. Physicists are good modelers and can interpret some kinds of data very well, but aren't experts in biology. The linked paper showed that birds eggs come in various shapes, and the shape of a species' egg is correlated with its ability to fly. That's due in part to the streamlined shape good fliers have, requiring an oblong egg shape that physically fits inside the body that species evolved. This paper is great because an expert in geometry and mechanics contributed by studying shape and strength, while an evolutionary biologist contributed experience in phylogeny and drew evolutionary conclusions. In these sorts of interdisciplinary works, it's essential to recognize one's own limited knowledge domain to not fall into the trap of drawing wildly incorrect conclusions.

(2) Because Dr Mahadevan's interests are in the relationship between geometry and biology, "gender" as a research topic was not a focus of anyone in the lab. sciatrix's thorough writeup makes it abundantly clear that there are a huge number of factors that dictate gender on a biological level, and further that the biology is insufficient to understand how that gender will be expressed due to cultural influences. Structure and mechanical properties don't dictate the gender of a human being (or even of a simple praise vole), so there is little chance that gender would have been part of James' work in any way whatsoever. In my years in the lab, gender was never discussed in any scientific or research context.

I can't intelligently comment on Damore's specific work at Harvard, or his motivation for writing the memo. I also can't comment on the "scientific" claims in the memo, which are better left to experts like sciatrix. But I can say with some conviction that his brief time at Harvard did not make him an expert in current research on gender. As far as I can tell he's in no way more qualified to make claims about gender than any other random person on the internet.
posted by bessel functions seem unnecessarily complicated at 6:35 PM on August 20 [39 favorites]


This is great. I can't possibly praise it highly enough.

When I first heard about evo-psych fifteen years ago, it seemed to me that the emphasis by Tooby and Cosmides was more about just broaching the subject of looking at a presumed variety of cognitive features as possible evolved adaptations. What excited me were the two related hypotheses: 1) that [some] [human] cognition is modular and specifically are adaptations, and 2) anchoring human cognition within the context of evolution and biology rather than the implicit dualism that I think is sort of the original sin of the long, long history of philosophical and, later, scientific investigations into it.

For me, as a person of my generation, the E. O. Wilsons of the world were the exception, not the rule, and his extremism was less a day-to-day intellectual concern than was the more dominant position at the opposite extreme. But I think that even just in the last seventeen years I've become much more cognizant of the simple truth that the brief nurturist-dominant period was historically exceptional and was explicitly and rightly a corrective response to the abhorrent extremes prior. It's become more clear to me every year how much more dangerous and damaging is the appropriation of biology and evolution by those seeking to defend an oppressive social status quo.

Likewise, when I read George Williams' Adaptation and Natural Selection, it seemed to me that he makes it clear in his introduction that it was intended as a correction to some excesses in the opposite direction.

So the sad contemporary state of evo-psych is no real surprise when seen in the larger cultural context. Of course the sexists have run with it, of course they've taken the hard adaptationist stance that demands the least amount of scientific and intellectual rigor. And given that -- as I understand it -- C&T's foundational Wason selection task research was flawed, I think we all would have been better off had evo-psych never been born.

Nevertheless, I wonder how many otherwise like-minded people will read this excellent essay but find themselves put off by the idea of any possible "biological1" sex-differences in cognition at all.

I'm also very pleased that -- though many may not really notice it -- this explains a little about some intersex conditions and calls into question the well-nigh universal popular assumption that biological sex is binary and absolute. It'd be nice if some people explored more of the developmental biology discussed in this.

Also, I especially liked this:
All of these names refer to distinct traditions of work⁴⁹ which usually have historical frames in which a topic is approached and discussed, with varying levels of cross-talk among them, sort of like a long ongoing conversation.
I have an interest and a little academic competence in the history and philosophy of science, and this brief passage gets right to the heart of the matter. There are various cultural contexts within which certain scientific questions are, in a word, "askable". One of the correctives of excessive conservatism in a particular tradition is the appearance of a related but new approach elsewhere. This can be good and bad. It's good when there arises a lot of interdisciplinary discourse and eventually (for those which survive) they each become mature and complementary to each other. But it's very revealing when one or more traditions become insular -- they do so for a reason, it's a kind of intellectual self-defense. The first parallel that comes to my mind is the Chicago school of macroeconomics. And it's interesting that new classical macroeconomics arose as a criticism of what it perceived as a lack of intellectual rigor (that is, a strong mathematical foundation) but then retreated into arrogant insularity (and uselessness, as far as I'm concerned).

I'd like to lay part of the blame of the rise and promulgation of MRA-ist, quasi-scientific assertions like those Damore makes on a failure of science education. Usually it's the case that STEM critics of general science education advocate for broader and stronger technical acuity, but I largely disagree with this, at least insofar as it relates to basic fluency within the context of general civic discourse. Children are presented with science as an unambiguous and unvarying authority, the facts and techniques taught reinforce the sense that the trappings of science is a measure of authority and truth. Therefore, people like Damore can dress up a lot of nonsense in scientific clothing and, frankly, a majority of his readers will be bamboozled. Our wonderful sciatrix does, indeed, present an authoritative and somewhat exhaustive repudiation to Damore, but I sense that the majority of those who would most benefit from reading it won't -- or, if they do, they will find the relative complexity and nuance of this genuinely scientifically competent essay less convincing that Damore's bold categorical assertions couched in scientific language. That's a problem, and I think that a greater emphasis on some more foundational pedagogy in the nature of science itself, both philosophically and as an institution, would benefit children more than increased technical competence from students who won't ever have use of those techniques again.

Anyway, again, thank you, sciatrix for all the work you put into this. It was a pleasure to read and I think that it will prove to have been worth it. Hopefully, it will get some wide exposure. I certainly plan to buy you a "cup of coffee" as soon as get up and find my PayPal authenticator.

(Oh, there's a typo in the form of a missing word in there somewhere, but damned if I can find it again. I copied the sentence into my clipboard, but then stupidly displaced it. Maybe someone else noticed it?)

1. I square-quote "biological" in that context advisedly, as sciatrix does, because it's pretty clear that people like Damore have no real idea of what that might mean and, furthermore, I don't really know what that means, either. It's a pity that we are still so compelled to think about and discuss these topics in an oppositional, binary fashion.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 7:19 PM on August 20 [9 favorites]


General heads up on responses to criticism from me: I'm cheerfully deleting comments in my own spaces (Twitter, Medium, theoretically Facebook) which raise spectres like "mew mew mew, Pinker liked Damore's science and other evolutionary psychologists" and "you're ANTI SCIENCE because you just HATE TRUTH." (I am not going into the Reddit thing, and I'm not debating anyone who can't engage with the point I made about examining the evidence cited on its own terms.)

I do admit to cheerfully mocking people who have clearly not read the piece in full before I block them on Twitter, but that's the extent of my willingness to engage with them right now. I'm tired! I'm just not capable of dealing with that right now--this is my vacation, I'm trying to not laserfocus on this thing and to let it go and do its thing out in the world. I'm largely failing on that, but tomorrow the spousal unit and I are getting up at the crack of dawn and going to the Houston Zoo, so that should be distracting. I hope.

You all are of course completely welcome to go out and defend the work or promote it anywhere you like; I'm not at all bothered by that, just setting a boundary about how engaged I'm willing to be in its defense right now. And if you have good-faith and respectful criticisms to make, feel free! For example, en forme de poire sent me a very nice nudge earlier this week about a minor and common not-quite-right way I explained p values, which I swear I'm going to get around to editing and fixing. And angrycat had a good question about how it is that we know that infants developing expectations about gender before they can even articulate full sentences is genuinely learning and not some inbuilt biological tendency that simply manifests at that point, like puberty. I'm fine with that, and if someone has a question like that I'm quite happy to natter on.

But also I'm wrestling with my imposter syndrome this week, preparing to grin widely and wade in with respect to a labmate who is, I'm pretty sure, likely to have nodded along and gone "ah yes of course" to Damore's memo. (This is the same labmate who once tried to explain to me that my side of the lab ought to focus more on the application of life history theory to condition dependence, which is actually my literal thesis. As in, the second slide of every talk I have given in the past two years is titled "Applying life history theory to sexually selected traits.") So I'm bracing myself to deal with the confused pushback I expect to get in my workplace when I do go back to work, and I'm trying to steel myself to punch through the imposter syndrome and get mad about it when someone is inevitably Uncomfortable with me taking a public stand. I'm not sure I'm willing to put up with the whole "well you don't really know what you're talking about" disrespect in any other facet of my life right now.

Honestly, y'all's generosity and the resoundingly positive response has been more overwhelming than the four or five idiots I've had up in my spaces. I, uh, I'm fuckin' floored by you all. My partner and I decided a while back that we should really get a security system, because it's not like I'm going to stop telling bigots to go and fuck themselves gently in their earholes, and I live in Texas and I have no sense of scale. So we did that yesterday.

You guys, you paid for that security system. It's overwhelming. And amazing. I'm not--I've been the beneficiary of the Internet's (and MeFi's!) love and largesse a few times before, like the time I got stranded in DC and needed help. But I'm really used to taking a stand and yelling someone down and having mostly people around me push back, not cheer me on, and that's been a hell of a head trip. And I have a lot of good emotions about that and a lot of anxiety.

Folks have asked me if I'm going to keep using my Patreon, and the answer is that I might well, although my usual output through there is not going to be this level of length and time investment. I've thought about a few different things I can do to make that happen and practice this kind of popular science writing on a more regular, smaller-scale basis, or to practice bringing folks Cool Shit I've Found more generally and make that a slightly bigger priority than doing the chores I need to get done to let my family scrape by. I'm thinking about that; if there are particular things you'd like to see out of me there, please do feel free to post in said patreon and we will go from there.

And, uh, now I intend to try and get to some specific comments.... Heh.
posted by sciatrix at 8:34 PM on August 20 [37 favorites]


Using this on my brother right now, thanks
posted by Danila at 8:52 PM on August 20 [2 favorites]


> Okay, in addition to the 2,316 other "ZOMG this!" moments I'm sure I haven't even gotten to... that one.

True fact: that's not only one of my favorite lines in the piece, but also one of the first ones Gautam--along with Stacey one of my two most thorough editors--immediately picked out as a favorite. (He's been my department bestie since we were first-years together learning how to TA Intro Bio Lab and hating it. He also actually added in and wrote the bit about my teaching style, because I hadn't thought to... but he's definitely watched me teaching heritability for the past five years. And he's right. I would expect my kids to know that if we covered it in class.)

> And from now on whenever I read about a face-eating leopard I'll be looking forward to voting for the Platypuses-Eating-Noses Party instead.

True facts: this caused a brief and extremely excited editorial exchange until I confirmed that no, I am not actually aware of any platypses biting off noses. I do know of a case or two where a tapir ripped someone's face off but that seemed needlessly dark.

> Adding to the next scientific experiment, of seeing how much sciatrix's sleep patterns can be disturbed by being bought lots of cups of coffee :)

Hilariously given Ko-fi's (and therefore my) framing, I am actually not allowed coffee/don't drink it--I'm sensitive to caffeine, it's a predictable anxiety trigger for me, and on top of that the equivalent of more than two cups of black tea will reliably send me into these nasty heart palpitation feelings where it feels like my heart keeps skipping beats and it's just... yech. I have deliberately never developed a taste for coffee, and my partner has a full-blown caffeine intolerance which only in the last few years behaved itself enough they could have chocolate again without risking mouth hives.

So all this is just my own bog standard natural enthusiasm/energy levels. :D I did in fact spend some of my Ko-Fi gains today at my favorite coffee shop, the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf where I both occasionally work and often host ace meetups, but on a "pure chocolate ice blended" which is honestly just a milkshake with a slightly different name on it. NO REGRETS. I also really enjoy tea lattes.

> Really heroic work here going through all this literature! The critique of adaptationism is something I think a lot of non-evolutionary biologists (even some molecular biologists tbqh) don't think enough about in this context, and the point about effect sizes is also incredibly important (I actually didn't realize the effects were that tiny in the personality psych comparisons).

In general I find that a lot of non-evolutionary biologists don't really appreciate the full consequence of natural variation without real adaptive merit, including a lot of molecular biologists--especially if they are working with genomic material from a limited subset of individuals! In fact, evolutionary biology (and ecology) have seen long arguments over time pushing back and forth from the days of the Modern Synthesis over how much of that natural variation is adaptive and how much is neutral.

Just to explain what I mean, when folks started to be able to distill and run Western blots on allozymes, initially they'd expected everything to be 100% identical, or almost everything. There was all manner of shock when it turned out that heterozygosity was very common indeed.. And when people began to get DNA sequence data it got even more confusing.

The trick is that mutations happen all the time--I believe the statistic is that each of us has, on average, six new mutations in our genome not passed from either parent--and not all of them, or even most of them, actually do very much. We are all slightly different, but we cobble our differences together to build a coherent ability to behave more or less the same way nevertheless.

I find that many non-evolutionary biologists, who typically do the vast majority of their work on inbred lab strains of model species who have been inbred and linebred to the point of genetic identicality, forget that this neutral diversity exists in natural populations. There's many ways, as it turns out, to get to the same point. I could probably go on, but I'll stop here. :)
posted by sciatrix at 9:37 PM on August 20 [13 favorites]


> This is a really excellent writeup, thanks sciatrix! The biggest surprise for me in this writeup was unexpectedly personal: I was a postdoc in the same lab as Damore while he was there. We never interacted directly (I didn't even know his last name...), and I don't know what specifically he was working on. However, I can comment on what Prof. Mahadevan's lab tends to work on.

Wow, this is amazing--I definitely didn't expect to run into someone who had worked alongside Damore while he was at Harvard! Thank you for the insight, I really appreciate it.

And further... In these sorts of interdisciplinary works, it's essential to recognize one's own limited knowledge domain to not fall into the trap of drawing wildly incorrect conclusions.

DING DING DING this is oh my goodness so exactly right. Like I said in the post itself, my lab is wildly interdisciplinary, which is sometimes great because there is always someone who knows how to do something you want to learn, and sometimes horrible because often it turns out the person who knows it is, uh, you. (This is how I wound up essentially self-teaching myself three programming languages and basic genome assembly.)

One of the things I think about the scientists commenting favorably on Damore's citations is that I don't think many of them fully understand how to stay in their own lanes, or what the limits of their expertise actually are. As much as I'd like it to be so, Engineer's Syndrome does not apply only to actual engineers. Many scientists get used to being treated as an expert in fields in which they legitimately are experts, and assume that their expertise in one fairly narrow field or subfield naturally translates to others. Unfortunately it rarely works like that, which is why collaboration is so very important.

I am honestly on the edges of my own wheelhouse in this piece, and literally the only reason I was able to know where the literature on this topic was and that it even existed was a) my Psychology degree as an undergraduate, which I primarily use for things like this, and b) my long-standing vague interest in the "science of queerness/gender variation", which has me reading many papers like this as I try and devise my own personal theories of gender in light of, y'know, the realities of my social world--which contains many trans and nonbinary people. From there, if I carefully run through the literature and check most-cited reviews, I can trust myself to be on solid ground--but that's because I've done a lot of historical and general reading and so I have a pretty solid bullshit detector and sense for the rhythms of the research over time.
posted by sciatrix at 9:37 PM on August 20 [10 favorites]


> Nevertheless, I wonder how many otherwise like-minded people will read this excellent essay but find themselves put off by the idea of any possible "biological1" sex-differences in cognition at all.

I'm also very pleased that -- though many may not really notice it -- this explains a little about some intersex conditions and calls into question the well-nigh universal popular assumption that biological sex is binary and absolute. It'd be nice if some people explored more of the developmental biology discussed in this.


I gotta say, I don't think I've observed anyone in my generation questioning the concept of biological sex differences, which is why I leaned so very hard on the effect of nurture and framing in my post. My sense is that folks who absolutely deny all biological sex differences in the mind to that extent are so wary of the scientific method as it is practiced by, well, people with their own inbuilt biases that I'm not even the person to convince them: they've already decided not to trust science a an institution and rejected these kinds of assumptions. I have a lot of sympathy for people who react like this, but at the end of the day I tend to go "eh, well, what do you want out of me as a biologist?"

Re: intersex folk, there's a reason I asked our own DrMew to have a look at the section on poor David Reimer. Intersex conditions are really fraught because I find that many biologists seem to think of intersex people as lab rats or sources of evidence on hormones, not people who are observing all the invasive focus on themselves as young children and forming their own opinions and impressions back. There are a few books out there on this topic I need to dig in and read, but if you want more of this I would strongly recommend that Brain Storm book.

And yes, I would absolutely say it is accurate that there are many issues with assuming that gender and sex are simple binaries. So many issues, really.
posted by sciatrix at 9:44 PM on August 20 [13 favorites]


(Sorry about the name, sciatrix. I even noticed it while proofreading for you and thought, "hey, sci knows a Cary Elwes!" and was amused but didn't point it out. Bad copyeditor, will go sit in the corner now.)
posted by Stacey at 3:13 AM on August 21 [1 favorite]


bessel functions seem unnecessarily complicated: I was a postdoc in the same lab as Damore while he was there. We never interacted directly (I didn't even know his last name...), and I don't know what specifically he was working on.

He authored a couple of papers with biophysicist Jeff Gore on game theoretic approaches to microbial cooperation and symbiotic interactions. The work is all theory + math + computer simulation. I can't help but wonder if trying to test his theories with actual bacteria would've given him some humility about applying mathematical ideas to the complications of life.
posted by clawsoon at 4:23 AM on August 21 [3 favorites]


sciatrix: The trick is that mutations happen all the time--I believe the statistic is that each of us has, on average, six new mutations in our genome not passed from either parent--and not all of them, or even most of them, actually do very much.

I've read somewhere that each cell in an adult human, not counting cancer cells, has an average of 50 mutations unique to itself. [googles] And neurons have up to 1000?? Huh.
posted by clawsoon at 4:37 AM on August 21


PZ Myers praises your paper, and another one on the 'fitness of women' topic.
posted by puddledork at 8:22 AM on August 21 [11 favorites]


just took a glance at r/jamesdamore, and while it is posted there, I think it's worth going in and upvoting. Right now it's not all that visible.

I don't know if these kinds of battles (upvoting/downvoting in biased spaces) are worth fighting, but I retain hope that some kids will at least encounter it and find that there is science against this kind of thinking. If you're young enough, and not scientifically literate enough, you might think that Damore's memo actually does have the weight of science behind it.


Done and done, despite my wishes I had thought of it unprompted.
posted by Samizdata at 9:44 AM on August 21


I'm afraid to say that trying to get people on subreddits like r/jamesdamore to engage with this is a pipedream. Might as well post it to r/The_Donald!
posted by Justinian at 11:28 AM on August 21 [1 favorite]


Damore has responded as someone asked on his subreddit...
"It's hard to find her actual argument. What claims of mine does she dispute?"
He appears to have given up before hitting the table of contents link 1 page into the article.
posted by halifix at 11:29 AM on August 21 [11 favorites]


I agree that the MRA devotees on his subreddit won't address the article, and will continue to use introduction style insults to blast the whole piece. It is however a place he frequents and comments on. So, waiting to see if how he responds other than an ask for commenters to do more labor with an implication that sciatrix isn't addressing his hard points.
posted by halifix at 11:36 AM on August 21 [1 favorite]


Just getting started on this, but I just want to throw in a hearty fuck yeah and high five. Incredible work.
posted by Existential Dread at 11:36 AM on August 21 [3 favorites]


It's hard to find her actual argument. What claims of mine does she dispute?

Well, this certainly reduces any vestigial belief I had that he was arguing in good faith even closer to zero.
posted by Green With You at 1:18 PM on August 21 [8 favorites]


My Facebook friends who are academics REALLY appreciated how thorough this piece was, and read the whole thing (one of them commented, "The reviewer #2 we all needed."). I myself was charmed as heck, because my response to people who asked if anything about Damore's screed was valid was basically "No, it's pop-psych evolutionary psychology" and now I can point to a very thorough explanation of what that means.
posted by Peach at 1:21 PM on August 21 [7 favorites]


Thank you!!! I'm so grateful for this effort.
posted by greermahoney at 1:29 PM on August 21


The whole thing is brilliant, and I'm in awe of its thoroughness.

The one part that broke my heart a little was this section: "If you pay men and women for their performance on realistic empathy tests, suddenly the gender difference vanishes completely even if it appears beforehand. And in fact there is significant evidence that differences in empathic ability between men and women stem from differences in motivation, not from differences in ability. On the average, men are just as good at working out what other people are thinking and doing something about it as women are — as long as they have a reason to bother paying attention."

I mean, "men can do it if they think it is worthwhile" plus "men usually refuse to do it" leaves you with the result of "men don't think practicing empathy without compensation is worthwhile", and that just...hurts. You'd think it would make me feel better to know that peer reviewed science has found my experiences to be true on a population level, but it just makes me feel bruised and exhausted.

Thank you sciatrix. This is truly an achievement.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 1:30 PM on August 21 [25 favorites]


I'm torn between “sunlight is the best disinfectant” and not giving him more attention but I wish everyone who claimed he might be trying to have a genuine conversation was confronted with him summarily blowing this article off on Reddit and his Twitter activity claiming that believing in sexism is like believing in Santa Claus. Not so much a tool as the entire hardware store…
posted by adamsc at 5:59 PM on August 21 [3 favorites]


Man, if you want to argue with the dude trying to convince me on twitter that Damore is arguing in good faith and that I'm being too mean and cynical about it, be my goddamn guest.
posted by sciatrix at 6:56 PM on August 21 [7 favorites]


Sciatrix, this is a beautiful piece of work. Thank you.
posted by Nancy_LockIsLit_Palmer at 7:23 PM on August 21


It is beautiful, and the fact that it's footnoted (to accessible resources, mostly! None of which are Wikipedia!) makes me weak at the knees.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:25 PM on August 21 [3 favorites]


sciatrix: you've been remarkably patient with him. He's like the final test for a moderation bot trying to distinguish between clueless and long troll.
posted by adamsc at 7:50 PM on August 21 [3 favorites]


It is beautiful, and the fact that it's footnoted (to accessible resources, mostly! None of which are Wikipedia!) makes me weak at the knees.

This was deliberate on my part, actually; where I could, I tried very hard to find easily accessible PDFs, and it was only at a very late stage that I belatedly realized I did not want to be promising to personally hand out PDFs to anyone who asked for an inaccessible one and pointed folks to #icanhazpdf instead. Paywalls suck.
posted by sciatrix at 8:37 PM on August 21 [4 favorites]


I've forwarded to the G+ science groups, and the only real conversation has been an argument by people who haven't read the paper. *sigh* I've also forwarded it to some friends in tech, includng a couple Google engineers.

Also, I noticed it just showed up at File770. So it's getting spread about in other locations.

I wonder- has anybody flipped this toward Jscalzi or cstross? They tend to get a lot of attention, and it seems like the sort of science-based paper thing they might call attention to. And, not to suggest MORE work for sciatrix, she seems like a perfect candidate for "the Big Idea".
posted by happyroach at 8:58 PM on August 21 [3 favorites]


Another voice of thanks, appreciation, and admiration. I've already passed the link on to a few people and expect to continue doing so. I'm very grateful for this monumental piece of work!
posted by jokeefe at 9:00 PM on August 21 [5 favorites]


The difference is, Mr. Damore, I know the viewpoint of your bias. I have seen the ideas you parade a thousand times, Mr. Damore, and I will see them thousands more before I die, waved by identical men who have never considered that their own biases might be a marked viewpoint, not an objectively neutral view of the world as it truly is. I have already grappled with them and looked deeply at the evidence for fatal flaws, but I expect to be explaining that women, liberals, the uneducated, and people of color have not cornered the market on uncritical biases for many years to come.

I joined Patron to support this writing, the only time I've been motivated to do so. But I want to do more, and it's such a great platform to support the voices of those addressing the thousands of 'identical men' promoting their social biases, crying poor when they are called to account.

This is a phenomenal, vigilant and thorough de-bunking of Damore. Great work sciatrix. Please keep writing when you can.
posted by honey-barbara at 7:49 PM on August 22 [5 favorites]


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