Morning Ed: Science {2016.09.13.T}

Will Truman

Will Truman is the Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. He is also on Twitter.

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31 Responses

  1. j r says:

    On Philip Cohen, I am trying to understand how any of what he cited is proof of a broken peer review system. He describes his paper this way:

    Opposition to pornography has declined in the U.S. since 1975, but faster for men than for women. As a result, the gender gap in opposition – with women more likely to oppose pornography – has widened.

    That’s the finding. Our interpretation – which is independent of the veracity of our finding – is that opposition has declined as porn became more ubiquitous, but that women have been slower to drop their opposition because at the same time mainstream porn has become more violent and degrading to women… We could be wrong in our interpretation, and there is no way to test it…

    And here is what one of the reviewers said:

    The author, however, does not empirically demonstrate that the found decline in opposition is the result of either postfeminism or pornographication. … The General Social Survey is convenient, easy to access, and quick to run. This, however, does not necessarily make for good empirical evidence. … If the author wanted to investigate postfeminism and pornagraphication and the relationship to pornography, a much more nuanced empirical study would have needed to have been designed.

    What am I missing? Because, that sounds right on.

    Some of the other reviewer comments appear to be focused on their own pet issues or on minor quibbles over presentation and statistical approaches, but I’m not sure what else to expect when the original paper itself is so flimsy. Obviously, I haven’t read the paper, but the abstract and the discussion of the empirical work sound like something that you might expect from a undergraduate honors thesis and not a paper co-authored by a research professor and a graduate student.Report

    • Chris in reply to j r says:

      Yeah, it seems abundantly clear to me that he’s cherry picked quotes from reviews (which often have “pet issues” or “you should have cited me… er, I’m anonymous, so I mean you should have cited this one person’s brilliant work!” sections) that fit his narrative, without actually providing an argument for the narrative. If this had been a peer-reviewed article, instead of a blog post, someone would have pointed that out and it would have been rejected.Report

    • This. Peer review has its issues, starting with the truth that if you ask someone for comments, they will provide them regardless of whether they have anything useful to say on the subject. This certainly has been my experience in the few times I have gone through the process. This is only a problem if the editor doesn’t understand what is going on. In this particular instance we also have the problem of people in the field not having a firm grasp of statistics. This is certainly a problem in some fields, but it isn’t a problem with peer review. It is far deeper than that.Report

      • I once spent a year as a referee for the IEEE (for a “special topic” issue of one of their flagship journals; by a combination of skill, luck, and timing, I was considered one of the world’s experts on that particular narrow topic). Doing the task well is hard. Knowledge of the field. Requires lots of time. In this particular case, not letting Jenglish get in the way of judging the content. Ego suppression along the lines suggested, ie, improving the paper while not turning it into “my” paper. One of the most difficult things is handling a paper that is largely drek, but has three paragraphs that would be the basis for a really good paper.Report

    • LTL FTC in reply to j r says:

      I’m not trained in this, but it did seem like the conclusions she drew from the limited data available coalesced into a “just-so story” that doesn’t necessary flow from the data, yet is non-falsifiable.

      Why post-feminism and not carceral feminism? Why not the realization that the Internet means the genie can’t be put back in the bottle? If this had trouble getting published, not knowing more than what was presented, the system works.Report

  2. Jaybird says:

    Too much credibility: Back when I argued Young Earth Creationism, one of the things we were taught to do was point out how much faith was being (mis)placed in these men in white coats who, quite regularly, betrayed the trust of the people who were arguing for how superior science was to religion… and then point out that these people had only traded one religion for another.Report

    • Burt Likko in reply to Jaybird says:

      At the time, did you think that you were being intellectually honest?

      Related question; do you think, today and in retrospect, that this was an intellectually honest point?Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Burt Likko says:

        We were taught that we were on the right side of a dialectic. We knew that there was a God, that He loved us and had a plan for our lives, and that the world was 6,000 years old.

        All of these other people who argued for evolution had no idea what they were talking about. They knew nothing of the history of science, they couldn’t explain the difference between Darwin and Lamarck, they couldn’t explain the difference between gradualism and punctuated equilibrium, and they had no idea that there were oh-so-many people who created hoaxes demonstrating the “truth” of evolution. (If evolution were true, why would you need a Nebraska Man? Why would you need a Piltdown Man? A really fun question was “If science cared more about truth than about a narrative, why would this be the first time you’ve ever heard about Nebraska Man?”)

        Given that we were on half of a dialectic, of course it was intellectually honest to ask these questions.

        In retrospect? I recognize these tools as being social criticism tools. I recognize them when they’re used (by team evil) in arguments involving Global Warming, I recognized them when they were being swung around (by team good, of course) during The Science Wars. They bubble up in the weirdest places.

        Intellectually honest? That seems orthogonal to how I see them now. I now see them as indicators that I am in the middle of a dialectic.

        Which tells me that other things are going on. Other things entirely. We’re not in “intellectual” space at that point (though there are no shortage of intellectuals to be found).Report

        • Burt Likko in reply to Jaybird says:

          We’re not in “intellectual” space at that point

          Now that may be the most interesting thing I see, hear, or read all day and that’s saying quite a lot. It’s interesting because what’s going on appears to be an intellectual discourse, but it really isn’t. Which is probably why exchanges of this nature are so frustrating for those who treat them that way.Report

          • Jaybird in reply to Burt Likko says:

            Something to watch out for:

            We all know Newton’s 2nd Law (IT IS KNOWN!):
            Force = Mass x Acceleration

            Right? That’s all good, right?

            We can’t assert “Newton’s 2nd Law is sexist!”
            That’d be stupid.
            We will be somewhat more successful to change it around. Ask a question.
            “Is Newton’s 2nd Law sexist?”
            The problem with that is that it immediately gets the answer “No! That’s stupid.”

            You know what we can ask?
            “What does it say about our predominantly white and predominantly male scientists that they have never even considered wrestling with the question of whether Newton’s 2nd Law is sexist?”

            And, suddenly, we’re not talking about Newton’s 2nd Law anymore. We’re talking about the scientists. Instead of you and I wrestling with the question of whether Newton’s 2nd Law is sexist (something that might be addressed by asking “Is Newton’s 2nd Law sexist?”), we’re wrestling with the scientists.

            Look for that. You see that sort of thing all over.Report

            • veronica d in reply to Jaybird says:

              @jaybird — I’ve certainly seen arguments that bad. However, I’ve also seen plenty who will try to draw parallels between the hard physical sciences and some sketchy conclusion from social science, where I hope we can agree that the perspective of the researches does indeed matter. In fact, this can happen anytime a scientist is making a step from raw math to some kind of narrative interpretation of the data.

              For instance, this book argues that, historically speaking, male biologists approached their analysis of the mating behavior in animals from a sexist perspective, which can be seen in how they frame the animal behavior. The author goes on to show how the same raw data can be interpreted quite differently. (It’s been a long time since I read the book. I can’t give specifics.)

              The point is, insofar as there is a narrative aspect in how biologists described various mating behaviors, the gendered perspective of the researches would show up. But more, the researches were probably unaware that they were doing this, since their background assumptions simply felt natural to them. Furthermore, one would expect they would find it unpleasant to have their perspectives challenged. After all, for most of us, gender and sexuality relate to pretty deep feelings. Poking at these things is fraught.

              That said, I’m quite comfortable in the notion of a base material reality, which exists independent of our opinions about it. However, our brains are heuristics executors, and we think in terms of narrative, with actors and agendas and will and so on. So it goes.

              One does not need to be a flim-flam continental “deconstructionist” to examine these things.

              tl;dr — applying feminist analysis to Newton’s second law -> silly; applying feminist analysis to the science of animal behavior -> not silly.Report

              • Jaybird in reply to veronica d says:

                Well, let’s stipulate that my thoughts were more dealing with Young Earth Creationism when discussing the use of these tools and I thought that the best way to demonstrate their obvious use would be to weakman (but not strawman!) something that I saw during The Science Wars.Report

              • Ah, the pomo critique of science! A friend of mine, who is now a sociology professor, and one of the smartest people I know, gave me a good thumbnail analysis of pomo and science. It opened, she said, with a valid and useful critique of how we know what we think we know, including the influence of the researcher. Think Margaret Meade in Samoa. The stuff we think we know isn’t a firmly established as we like to think, and so a careful reexamination, including a close look at the researcher’s role, is in order, and indeed overdue.

                This is all probably true and interesting. Yay, team! But the next step is that the pomo crowd has a cultural bias for taking a good idea and running with it, right off the edge of a cliff. This is how we get “reality is just a social construct” and “Newton’s Principia is a rape manual” nonsense. This in turn stigmatizes the earlier, valid and useful points, making the entire enterprise a colossal waste of time.

                My brother the academic chemist used to say that he would welcome the pomos taking over chemistry departments. More grant money for him!Report

              • veronica d in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

                When you encounter really good ideas, but which are being misapplied in silly ways, a good response is to ignore the silly people, but to keep the really good ideas. So indeed, we should continue the feminist (and other SJ-motivated) critiques of “predominantly white and predominantly male scientists” in exactly those cases where white-ness or male-ness is likely to influence the results.

                Physics -> not so much

                Biology -> some aspects

                Anthropology -> from tip to tail

                There is indeed a “white lens” and a “male lens,” etc., which influence how results are interpreted. They also influence which questions get asked. This stuff matters.


                Speaking for myself, I’m a divisive issue, and all kinds of people will attack me wearing the cloak of science, when the raw scientific truth is I had my gonads removed, I take estrogen, and I grew breasts. This has improved my mental well being to a degree I can barely describe.

                All else is commentary.Report

              • Oscar Gordon in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

                And we get documentaries like “What The Bleep Do We Know?”.Report

              • Woody Allen said it best:

                Is knowledge knowable? If not, how do we know this?


            • Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

              Thinking about this some more, the next things to watch out for when dealing with the “What does it say about our predominantly white and predominantly male scientists that they have never even considered wrestling with the question of whether Newton’s 2nd Law is sexist?” question, there are a handful of things that reliably happen:

              1. some jerk comes out and says something to the effect of “isn’t that question just asking whether Newton’s 2nd Law is sexist? It’s not. End of conversation.” This reliably gets the response of something like “NOBODY IS SAYING THAT NEWTON’S 2ND LAW IS SEXIST!!!” (all caps optional, but you recognize the full blast when you see it)

              2. After some jerk gets a little taken aback by the full blast, he’ll probably try to do something like say “well, if the question is asking what does it say about us that we haven’t wrestled with this statement that nobody is saying probably has to do with one of the things that science does being falsifying statements” or some other jerk thing to say about what science does. This gets the response that talks about the jerk in question rather than about the original question asking a question about a question that nobody is asking. “You’re a sexist if you don’t want to deal with why scientists haven’t done this.” Another fun thing to look out for is making these accusations somehow hidden. “You’re a secret sexist.” “You’ve got sublimated sexism.” “You’ve got sexism that is so hidden that it’s even hidden from you.”

              And what in the hell does this have to do with Newton’s 2nd Law?

              Nothing. Pity the poor jerk who thought that it ever did.Report

            • Maria in reply to Jaybird says:

              Spot on! Divert the conversation from the science and make it about the scientists and you can create all sorts of doubt and confusion around something that really isn’t all that confusing.Report

        • (If evolution were true, why would you need a Nebraska Man? Why would you need a Piltdown Man? A really fun question was “If science cared more about truth than about a narrative, why would this be the first time you’ve ever heard about Nebraska Man?”)

          [Looks up “Nebraska Man” in Wikipedia] Umm…, because this critique begs the question? It assumes that Nebraska Man, both in its existence and its obscurity, is Deeply Meaningful. A scientist incorrectly identified a tooth. Other scientists were immediately skeptical. Further excavations were made. The first scientist was proved wrong, and the skeptical scientists proved right. The first scientist acknowledged the new weight of evidence and retracted his initial claim.

          In other words, the system worked. But to realize this, you have to understand what the system is. I see similar critiques of science from people who think that science is just another religion. If the Pope were to announce that nope, transubstantiation does not occur in the eucharist after all, this would be big news and correctly interpreted as a change in doctrine: flip-flopping, as it were.

          If one thinks that this is what science is, then a scientist changing his conclusions in the face of new evidence is proof that science is not merely a religion, but a shamelessly opportunistic one at that. In reality, this is in “not even wrong” territory. I rarely argue with creationists. Life is too short.Report

          • Yes. I know.

            I was there.Report

          • Morat20 in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

            There’s a scene in Parks and Rec where the main character is being grilled for “flip-flopping” over a risque tweet.

            It goes:

            Jam: “When this sick, depraved tweet first came to light, you said, “The account was probably hacked by some bored teenager. Now you’re saying it’s an unfortunate mistake. Why do you keep flip-flopping?”

            Leslie: “Well, because I learned new information. When I was four, I thought that chocolate milk came from brown cows, and then I flip-flopped when I found out that there was something called chocolate syrup.”

            You’d be surprised at how often I see what seems to be functioning human beings who can’t grasp the notion of “I learned new information, and thus changed my conclusion”.Report

            • Jaybird in reply to Morat20 says:

              That Parks and Rec conversation accurately reflects the relationship between the media and what the media considers important.

              Wouldn’t a more interesting question be “When this sick, depraved tweet first came to light, you said, “The account was probably hacked by some bored teenager. Now you’re saying it’s an unfortunate mistake… what steps have you taken against the person who lied to you in such a way that made it look like you lied to us?”

              Isn’t that question much more interesting?

              (Note: I’ve never watched Parks and Rec, though I have been told countless times that I would like Ron Swanson.)Report

              • Kazzy in reply to Jaybird says:

                Part of the joke is she’s being “grilled” by a board member who is a total imbecile.

                But yes that is a better question. Though it begs the question that lies were told which isn’t always the case. If I remember correctly, she jumped the gun in assuming it was a hack because she couldn’t imagine ab employee doing that. Turns out the employee mixed up her personal and work accounts without realizing.Report

          • DensityDuck in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

            “The first scientist acknowledged the new weight of evidence and retracted his initial claim.”

            Sure, but it wasn’t that scientist who claimed that the tooth was evidence of primate (or even proto-human) life in America. That was Osborn, who enthusiastically used it as a club to beat on the Evolution Deniers. And Osborn never actually retracted anything; he just sort of stopped talking about it.Report

        • Mike Schilling in reply to Jaybird says:

          “If science cared more about truth than about a narrative, why would this be the first time you’ve ever heard about Nebraska Man?”

          Because who cares about flyover country?Report

  3. veronica d says:

    I wonder if sapphic women have a similar response to ovulation? I wonder if I can manipulate my hormone doses to simulate this?

    (I really need to convince my doc to let me try progesterone.)Report

    • veronica d in reply to Jaybird says:

      It’s not false, but I don’t think the author really engages without unhealthy places like /pol/ really are. It’s fine to point out that it challenges the status quo, but many things challenge the status quo. We get to look at who is making the challenge, what their objections are, what their justifications are, etc. On the whole, /pol/ does not come out looking good. In fact, I’d call it the flotsam and jetsam of suburban blight, an army of mediocre white boys hungry for — well, something interesting in a world that has become utterly safe. In other words, they’re ninnies and sadsacks, full of false bravado, who need to harden the fuck up.Report