It’s that time of the year again, when A-plussers gather to lecture the rest of the world on how to be good atheists with a conscience. The
online chats FtBconScience event allows them to showcase their amateurish presentation skills, the idiocy of their PoMo constructs, the vapidity of their silly little minds. Like last year’s inaugural FtBcon, the 2014 edition featured a range of talks having little or nothing to do with atheism, skepticism, or science, but a whole lot about pretentious, privileged fools rambling on about social injustices, real or imagined.
More than a few minutes of such droning & mewling is torture to any reasoning person. One presentation, however — Evidence Based Feminism by HJ Hornbeck — caught my eye, so I decided to watch it in its entirety.
I wondered whether Hornbeck, a podcaster and former college freethought activist, might attempt to substantiate rad fem concepts like Teh Patriarchy™ and Rape Culture™, considering, not only has no real evidence ever been presented for their existence, they are, as currently defined, unfalsifiable. To my disappointment, Hornbeck merely sought to prove that men & women are equal. Not under the law, mind you, but equal because there are no real differences between men & women. Not in performance, cognition, behavior, nothing. Much to my surprise — and contra everything I’d previously been taught from high school biology on — I learned from Hornbeck’s talk that there aren’t even any substantive physiological or genetic differences between males and females. Mostly due to the fact that males and females don’t actually exist.
Brief Truncated History of Sex Research
Hornbeck begins his presentation by stating “For over 100 years science has been studying culture and gender. For twice as long, feminism has also been making claims about culture and gender.” (Note: when quoting, I will primarily draw on Hornbeck’s prepared script.)
For this “feminist view of gender,” Hornbeck quotes Simone de Beauvoir, who “the vast majority of the feminist movement still agrees with:”
“The biological and social sciences no longer admit the existence of unchangeably fixed entities that determine given characteristics, such as those ascribed to woman, the Jew, or the Negro. … But does the word woman, then, have no specific content? This is stoutly affirmed by those who hold to the philosophy of the enlightenment, of rationalism, of nominalism; women, to them, are merely the human beings arbitrarily designated by the word woman.”
We’re already off to a bad start, as this is somewhat obtuse to serve as a formal assertion of claims. It’s also peculiar that Hornbeck has chosen a philosopher to bat lead-off in what was promised as a scientific inquiry. De Beauvoir’s quote comes from her introduction to The Second Sex, and if we explore further there, we find “[a]ll agree in recognising the fact that females exist in the human species; today as always they make up about one half of humanity.” As de Beauvoir also acknowledges the physiological dimorphism between the sexes, we can surmise (though Hornbeck never clarifies) that ‘womanhood‘ is a social concept distinct from anatomical ‘femaleness.’
Hornbeck next takes us on a herky-jerky survey of almost a century of research into sex-based differences in performance and behavior. He begins with Helen Woolley’s 1914 study of fifty individuals, which found several sex differences, followed by the 1927 survey by Florence Goodenough (inventor of the pseudo-scientific Draw-A-Man Test) who found different differences, but concluded: “the practical import of sex differences in mental traits is negligible, since the amount of overlapping is so great that the small differences between the sexes are completely overshadowed by the great variations found to exist between members of the same sex.” Then on to a 1930 review by Harvey Lehman and Paul Witty, critical of methodologies of previous studies. (Lehman’s own methodology has been criticized as “flawed” and “unsophisticated.”)
Hornbeck is thrown off track a bit when he gets to Lewis Terman’s 1946 Psychological Sex Differences. Terman (mentor to Goodenough, btw) proposed a biological, hormone-fueled cause for sex differences, which Hornbeck “senses” must have been a “minority position” for the time. Hornbeck appears unaware that Terman was a eugenicist, that the US was the birthplace of eugenics, or that, according to the Cesspool of Lies, during the first half of the last century “[e]ugenics was widely accepted in the U.S. academic community. By 1928 there were 376 separate university courses in some of the United States’ leading schools, enrolling more than 20,000 students, which included eugenics in the curriculum.” (Dude — Google is your friend.)
We then fast-forward to a 1974 study by Maccoby & Jacklin, The Psychology of Sex Differences, which apparently found none, and 1981 & 1988 papers by feminist and Gender Studies lecturer, Janet Shibley Hyde, corroborating said lack of findings.
His exhaustive survey completed, Hornbeck can only scratch his head (which he does, for effect.) “Whatever your stance, we find ourselves in a very weird place. It’s been over one hundred years since Woolley’s crack at the subject, yet we still don’t have a consensus on gender differences. Even the meta-analyses I’ve covered don’t always agree.”
“How can we conclude anything from this mess?” he muses, before launching into an obtuse, completely non-sensical, & ballistically inaccurate analogy about firing ranges. “If we were unbiased and accurate,” Hornbeck surmises,
“we’d have long settled the sex difference question. If we were biased, or the differences were small, or our tools were inaccurate, then we’d have results all over the map. But the vast literature and use of meta-analyses rule out inaccurate tools, and the wild clusters of different and shifting conclusions point to significant bias. So De Beauvoir called it; either the differences are so small they can be treated as non-existent, or we’re biased and in need of a shrink.”
Such is what passes for a logical thought process in A-Plusdom. Behold Hornbeck’s Razor:
‘Conflicting evidence is evidence of your preferred conclusion.’
Apart from this horrific illogic, Hornbeck relies too heavily on an handful of meta-studies. For one, analyses of crap studies will yield equally crap results. Second, “wild clusters” of data points are to be expected when one compiles 80-, 90- 100 year-old studies by everyone from eugenicists, to New Deal reformers, to radical feminists, all of whom employed shoddy methods, were prone to profound observational bias, and collected data from minute sample sizes.
Most egregious, Hornbeck’s cursory review examined only psych & humanities studies, and stops in 1988. Had Hornbeck looked at any of the copious behavioral research of the past quarter century, performed by real scientists using proper methods, he’d have uncovered a strong consensus that significant sex-based differences in cognition and behavior do exist. For example:
- A 2103 University of Pennsylvania study showing “striking differences” in how the neural nets are wired in male vs. female brains;
- A 2012 University of Turin study of 10,000 individuals which “using new and more accurate methods to measure and analyze personality differences” found differences that were “extremely large … by any psychological standard” and concluded that “the true extent of sex differences in human personality has been consistently underestimated…. The idea that there are only minor differences between the personality profiles of males and females should be rejected as based on inadequate methodology”;
- A 2008 Northwestern / University of Haifa study using fMRI to study language abilities: “For the first time and in unambiguous findings, researchers show both that brain areas associated with language work harder in girls during language tasks, and that boys and girls rely on very different parts of the brain when performing these tasks. Language processing is more abstract in girls, more sensory in boys”;
- Multiple studies documenting “robust” sex differences in spacial ability, including at least one, by UCLA in 2008, detecting significant differences in children as young as five months of age.
As a rule, Hornbeck automatically rejects as invalid any research reporting sex differences. Why? Because, pace Feyman, the science industry only publishes “spectacular” findings. Barring any examples (and Hornbeck provides none,) this is just desperate special pleading for his favored results.
Having dismissed conventional scientific practices, Hornbeck expounds on his own methodology for exploring the very existence of sex-based attributes. Unlike tallness — which displays distinct dimorphism — Hornbeck claims things like math skills, spatial ability, behavior, are too inchoate to correlate with one sex or the other.
“How would you establish their existence? Suppose I assert that all women possess vaginas, and find that out of 100 women, 100 possess vaginas. Have I demonstrated that the 101st woman will possess a vagina? Nope. How about a million? A billion? For what value of X do I demonstrate that example X+1 possesses a vagina, and why do I fail at example X-1?”
The antithesis of evidence-based reasoning, one might note, but Hornbeck is on a roll. On a shakily held tablet thrust at the camera, Hornbeck flips through a series of unlabeled, unexplained graphs to expose every statistically significant sex difference as irrelevant.
Hornbeck invents a new measure of sex differences, which I’ll call Guessability. “[I]f I was to hand you someone’s height, you should be able to predict their sex,” Hornbeck informs us, with 83% accuracy, as 83% of the time a given man is taller than a given woman. Leaning on his handful of favorite meta-studies, Hornbeck exposes alleged cognitive differences as unguessable:
- Mathematical skill — 51/49 (&/or 60/40)
- Spacial ability — 54/46
- Risk-taking — 58/42
- Sexual indiscretions — 56/44
- Nurturing behavior — 54/46
- Mental rotation — 61/39
Hornbeck is shocked that the Guessability “failure rate” for the latter is 39%. “How can they state ‘men are significantly better at mental rotation,’ then?” Umm, because the data were statistically significant? Oh, pshaw! Statistical methods are irrelevant, avers Hornbeck. What really matters, he informs us while patting his heart, is whether something is “personally significant … in our messy everyday lives.”
Next comes a systematic debunking of all possible non-social causal factors for sex differences.
The fMRI studies mentioned above are worthless, Hornbeck opines. Why? Because the Guessability quotient is only 60%, and besides, neural imaging is shit as it provides too much data. Hornbeck correctly notes that one possibility is that social roles might “[cause] our brain’s to rewire and adapt.” Employing Hornbeck’s Razor, he decides that because this hasn’t been ruled out, it must be so.
Hornbeck cites two examples proving that hormones can’t be a factor:
- Of 40 studies on PMS, 24 found a “relation between mood and menstruation” and 16 didn’t. Per Hornbeck’s Razor, “PMS probably doesn’t exist”;
- The “streak gonads” of intersex XY females (Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome) “pump out the same level of testosterone compounds you’d find in a man — and yet, no-one would dare call these people men.”
Genes are ruled out as possible agents, because: evo psych. Hornbeck commences by trashing evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers’ groundbreaking work on parental investment and sex ratios in animals, for his “unnecessary” assumption that “there are only two sexes, fundamentally different from one another.”
Trivers is a well-respected contributor to the field of ethology, and it’s unclear exactly what Hornbeck’s real beef is beyond the violation of the Social Justice dogma of Gender Spectrum™. Perhaps it was Trivers’ glowing introduction to the first edition of
Satan’s Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene? Or his enthusiasm for evo psych? Maybe what rankles Hornbeck most is Trivers’ writings on self-deception.
The origin of Hornbeck’s loathing for evolutionary psychologist David Buss is more obvious. For Buss makes strong assertions that behavioral differences between males & females are adaptive. Hornbeck also takes issue with Buss’ claim that significant sex differences should be found in spatial ability. Buss’ “cherry-picking”, Hornbeck insists, “completely ignores” cognitive psychologist Daniel Voyer’s 1995 meta-study “which as I showed earlier found a difference small enough to be explained by social factors.” Voyer’s paper lies behind a paywall, but the abstract states: “Results showed that sex differences are significant in several tests but that some intertest differences exist. Partial support was found for the notion that the magnitude of sex differences has decreased in recent years.” (My emphasis.) On his professional page, Voyer cites his own research showing significant variations in guessing behavior, accuracy in self-perception of performance, and on certain spatial tests.
A few minutes are spent indulging in a gratuitous pummeling of a straw man Hornbeck labels “evo psych”. As a ‘gotcha!’ he presents a study (Conley et al., 2011) which “found that women preferred attractive men to wealthy men [and] that men ignored whether or not a woman was fertile when deciding to share the sack,” something Strawman McEvopsych says can’t be true.
Schmitt, et al. (2012) point to serious mistakes in Conley et al.’s statistical methods, and their failure to properly understand the claims of evolutionary psychologists. For example:
“Sexual-strategies theory does not predict that most men will seek large numbers of partners or that few women will seek short-term mates …. Rather, it predicts that when men are actively seeking short-term mates, they should tend to seek larger numbers of sexual partners than women should when they are actively seeking short-term mates…. When examined in this proper context, repeated cross-cultural tests have shown that men’s and women’s desired number of sex partners are not the same; for example, … about 25% of men but only 5% of women want ‘more than one’ sexual partner in the next month.”
“But there’s a bigger problem here”, Hornbeck trudges on. “No other animal has the genetic code I do, and given how many possible genomes there are, none probably ever will.” Meaning every individual is unique. So lumping people into binary categories is wrong. And since Hornbeck’s body contains X chromosomes, how can you say he’s male? “On the flip side, you don’t need a Y chromosome to make a man,” he reveals. For, though exceedingly rare, XX males (de la Chapelle Syndrome, birth incidence 1:20,000) do exist. By this point, Hornbeck’s concept of what constitutes a sex is even more foggy than de Beauvoir’s.
No More Sex!
Having disposed of any possible physiological causes for sex differences, Hornbeck brings his talk to a climax by disposing of physiological sex entirely.
First, he scolds hard scientists for shifting the goal posts: “Contemporary research has abandoned gender differences in favor of sex differences.” People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, HJ. While the humanities may have endlessly hemmed and hawed over terminology and the relation between ‘woman‘ and ‘female‘, ‘sex‘ and ‘gender‘, real scientists have been talking about just sex all along. Mendel studied sexual reproduction. Haldane and Fisher calculated sex ratios and sex selection. WIlliams and Hamilton explored the cost:benefit payoffs of kin selection and mating behaviors.
A bit earlier, Hornbeck presented a fantasy version of the history of sex, beginning with Plato, where either hermaphrodites were accepted as an (extinct) third sex, or there was just one sex, with women being defective versions of men whose heads were genitals. “The assertion that there are exactly two sexes is pretty new.” Hornbeck does not share his sources for his data on the sex concepts of prehistoric humans or early hominids.
While “some branches of feminism [are] content with sex differences,” all the folks HJ hangs out with are not. So he accepts the assertion of the Transfeminist Manifesto “that sex and gender are both socially constructed; furthermore, the distinction between sex and gender is artificially drawn as a matter of convenience.”
There can be no sex differences, Hornbeck concludes, because there are no different sexes. Feminism is true, QED.
Cleaning Up the Mess
After such a total bollox of a good topic, is there any way we can sort out the mess? We must first begin by reviewing where Hornbeck went wrong.
– Hornbeck is overly enamored of meta-studies. While they can be helpful when dealing with surveys of miniscule samples (as behavioral studies so often are), meta-studies have their own drawbacks. They risk skewing or blurring results by averaging across demographics, combining antipodal biases, and mixing good methodologies with the bad. Culling and weighting the subject studies is prone to the bias of the person conducting the meta.
Hornbeck was also remiss in relying exclusively on research from the social sciences and humanities, and older ones at that, while ignoring more recent research conducted under more rigorous standards. He fails to address meta-analyses contrary to his premises, like Reilly & Neumann’s (2013) which casts doubt on certain models of social-based sex differences. Most peculiar is his neglect of the mother of all meta-studies, Ellis, et al.’s Sex Differences: Summarizing More Than a Century of Scientific Research (2009) which reviews all 18,000 sex difference studies ever conducted, and examines over fifty parameters, including: aggression, altruism, competitiveness, conformity, emotions, language. mental illness, motor coordination, neurotransmitters, odor discrimination, pain perception, self-assessment, sexual desires, spatial ability, substance abuse, etc.
– Seemingly driven to find evidence that any observed sex differences are purely the result of social factors, Hornbeck forgets it’s rarely an either-or proposition. While social factors do seem at play in many cases of sex differences, social science researchers have yet to glean them out of the raw data. Brain science researchers are tackling the problem from the other end, by trying to quantify the extent to which a given difference is caused by physiological factors. Hornbeck also neglects that social constructs don’t form in a vacuum. Stereotypes of male vs. female abilities likely originated as exaggerated, codified versions of natural, observed differences.
– Hornbeck displays a glaring ignorance — common for SJWs — of genetics and embryology. Especially naive is pointing to intersex conditions as evidence against two sexes. I’ve previously discussed intersex disorders at length, but suffice it to note here that these are malfunctions, not variations, of sex determinant processes.
– The assertion, that the concept of binary sexes is new, is absurd. For the past 900 million years, there have been but two sexes in our lineage. Before that, there was only one. Female and male bodies must perform numerous disparate tasks. Any differentiation by sex would be adaptive, thus favored by evolution. And forget about hunters vs. gatherers, pal: binary sex is ancient.
– By dismissing statistical significance, a bedrock of sound research, as irrelevant to his ‘messy personal life’, Hornbeck reveals himself as anti-science at heart. His narrow perspective — the nuances of contemporary culture, and but a slice of that — blind him to the broader, evolutionary perspective. And minute, relative advantages are what drive evolution. A gene that conferred a .05% greater chance of survival than its alleles would rapidly proliferate. Some of the variances found in recent studies, which Hornbeck poo-poos, are massive in comparison. Natural selective pressures on humans have waned considerably in modern times. It would be interesting to see if sex differences in performance and behavior aren’t even more pronounced among animals.
– Hornbeck conflates sex and gender, using both terms interchangeably. Even if he intended to argue that they are interchangeable, he’d need to state that at the outset, and still employ the terms in a consistent fashion to avoid confusion.
– Finally, Hornbeck never made a formal assertion of his claim, accompanied by definition of terms and grounds for falsification. Any good skeptic would know to commence their argument with such a statement. But HJ Hornbeck is not a good skeptic.
What are sound arguments for equality? Ironically, the strongest may be the sex differences, for they describe overlapping bell curves. So, while most men may be better suited than most women as firefighters, for example, or fighter pilots, not all men are, and not all women are unsuited. Such exceptions to the rule preclude institutionalized restrictions or segregations. Similarly, woman may tend to be more nurturing, but that does not mean every mother should be awarded child custody over every father.
As important is simply recognizing that, while men & women may differ in certain attributes (whether due to nature or culture), those respective attributes are not necessarily objectively superior or inferior. If men & women tend toward differing styles of leadership or communication, we are doubly enriched. We can learn from each other, with a man perhaps sometimes employing a ‘female’ method of communication, while a woman might chose a ‘male’ style of leadership, and vice versa. But we first need to determine which sex differences we can change and which we need to work around, before we start discussing which ones we ought to change. The A-plussers want none of that.
Having devoted five recent posts to the poor science comprehension of SJWs, (the others on predictive models, quantum mechanics, statistics on racism, and gender identity.) I can only conclude that to be a social justice warrior, you have to be bad at science. Commencing from emotionally-driven, a priori conclusions, SJWs then forage through research just long enough to pick out friendly data. Relying almost exclusively on findings from the ‘soft’ sciences & humanities, which are often little more than philosophical musings or doctrinaire polemics, SJWs rationalize away any data that conflict with their dogma (as does Hornbeck with fMRI research.)
Hornbeck worries that the research conducted by feminists will be deemed “cargo cult science.” Truth be told, Social Justice Science is little different than Creation Science. A-plussers are an embarrassment to skepticism, and we can only be thankful they go essentially unnoticed outside their online chats & little echo chambers.
(c) 2014 by Matt Cavanaugh. All rights reserved.