Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Cordelia's Not-So-Fine Book Testosterone Rex Wins Royal Society Prize

No, seriously, Cordelia Fine's Testosterone Rex won the annual Royal Society science book prize.  Fine staunchly advocates the blank slate theory of human sexual differences, i.e. that cultural norms drive behavioral and other visible differences. That Fine's book is the purest tosh has been addressed elsewhere, as for example West Hunt's long-form review, Stuart Ritchie's review in Quillette, or Jerry Coyne's criticisms.  She botches her analysis of, the subsequent meaning of, and corrections/improvements to Angus Bateman's groundbreaking fruit fly research in the 1940's. She ignores research on congenital adrenal hyperplasia on other mammals, including among our near evolutionary cousins, the great apes. (Girls born with this condition secrete unusually large amounts of testosterone, and exhibit more male-typical play.) Ritchie notes that she elides significant criticism:
This fits into a pattern: evidence contrary to Fine’s position is often cited, but it’s not mentioned in the text, instead being relegated to endnotes where it can’t cause too much trouble. Witness, for instance, Fine’s mention of “stereotype threat”, where a single supporting study is discussed in the text but a contrary meta-analysis is only mentioned in the endnote. Or her discussion of a 2015 paper on how males’ and females’ brains aren’t essentially different, but are a mosaic of features: you wouldn’t know that four strong scientific critiques of the study had been published (with a response) unless you flick to the back of the book. This allows Fine to use the main text to critique only the most overblown claims about sex differences, and avoid having to deal at length with more reasonable arguments. of "stereotype threat": "a single supporting study is discussed in the text but a contrary meta-analysis is only mentioned in the endnote".
It seems foreordained that this award will serve as a significant data point for the notion that politics has corrupted the academy. Or will it? The panel issuing the award consisted of
  • Richard Fortey (paleontologist, committee chair)
  • Naomi Alderman (novelist)
  • Claudia Hammond (broadcaster, writer, social psychologist)
  • Dr. Sam Gilbert (brain researcher)
  • Shaminder Nahal (broadcast TV editor)
That is to say, it is predominated by non-scientists. How this might have happened would prove an interesting story, but it is not the same thing as a vote by the bulk membership (as with the Hugo Awards). Yet it points in a disturbing direction, cloaking badly-executed science with the imprimatur of the Royal Society. I hope this draws a strong reaction from actual biologists.

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