Doing Social Science Skepticism Right

I’ve said before that presenting social science in a way that encourages skepticism and gives a sense of the complexity of the science involved is very difficult. The situations are complex. The number of variables is enormous. The research is of varying quality, not easily spotted from the outside. We all have biases that make it difficult to sort through the mountains of data that have been collected.

This is one of the reasons that CSICon made me so happy. They did it right, in two different sessions. The first was on gender differences, and the second was on the interaction of political positions and scientific denialism. Either one of these could have gone badly. Each would have been difficult for a single presenter to remain impartial about over the course of a talk and Q&A.

So the schedule never had just one presenter on this sort of topic. They had multiple presenters with multiple, competing viewpoints whose presentations directly addressed each other’s. I suppose it’s possible that topics like these could be addressed better from a skeptical point of view, but I don’t know how, and I’ve never seen it done this well.

To give you a sense of how this worked, I’ll give you some of the live-tweeting of the session on gender. Ron Lindsay moderated the session. Richard Lippa and Carol Tavris spoke. Lippa, who researches gender differences, spoke first.

  • “Here at #csicon, we don’t do pop psychology.” –@RALindsay introducing the gender differences panel.
  • First up, Richard Lippa talking about the gender similarities hypothesis. (Tweets are summary, not commentary.)
  • Showing us some moderate differences in the “Big Five” personality traits. Women tend to be more agreeable and neurotic.
  • Referencing Del Guidice’s paper arguing that differences need to be measured “spatially”, as cumulative differences.
  • Noting that males rates of learning and other disorders are higher, with female rates of mood disorders.
  • @anarchival: Men suffer more often from reading disorders, autism, ADD, sexual masochism, schizo, antisocial, women more from mood disorders.
  • @WilloNyx: Lippa overall differences small to no difference. Math males. Visual spatial males bit some kinds females. Verbal fluency female….
  • @Sci_Phile: Sex differences: “For decades the IQ test was purposefully crafted to show little difference between male and female intelligence.”
  • @DebGod: Sex differences re: mental rotation appear in infants within months. More likely biological.
  • Differences in abilities observed as early as 3 months. Suggests a limited role for culture at that age.
  • Gender differences on some tasks larger in “western” countries with less structured gender roles.
  • @RLBevins: Hmmm, I never meta-analysis that I didn’t like, to quote Crislip. (Methodologically, they should always be considered suspect)
  • Women and men show differences in thing-oriented vs. people-oriented occupations.
  • Occupational preferences show very consistent differences across countries (BBC’s internet-based survey of gender characteristics).
  • @Sci_Phile: Skeptical about “people-things” data shown: jobs used to determine male/female orientation are already gendered (i.e. dance teacher)
  • Gains in women’s employment in last 4 decades largely seen in people-oriented professions.
  • Similar percentage increases seen in thing-oriented professions, but overall numbers started and remained low.
  • People-oriented vs. thing-oriented job dichotomy has widened as status differences between men’s and women’s jobs have narrowed.
  • @RLBevins: From discussions with women in engineering field, the educational structure was both actively and passively misogynist, making me wonder if some job categories have secondary confounding effects.
  • Men have higher self-reported sex drive and less “bisexuality” (reported attractions, not identity). Still using BBC survey data.
  • @_sydleroy: Would you say it’s more acceptable for a man to admit his high sex drive? Would you say it’s more acceptable for a woman to admit her sexual fluidity?
  • @krelnik: Richard Lippa on gender differences: “I don’t know if it’s ‘mars and venus’ but at least it’s North Dakota and South Dakota.”
  • @DebGod: Interesting to me that Lippa is pointing out sex differences; I’d like to know the theories about why. Maybe Tavris will get into some of the “why”?
  • Gaze data showing women look at women as much as they look at men. Men look at women far more than at men.
  • @rebeccawatson: Lippa at #csicon measured attraction by how long people look at a photo of a model. More accurate if they were masturbating at the time.
  • @anarchival: 1) Women tend to look at other women to self-compare, 2) Women might be less shamed than men to explore same-sex attraction.
  • Strong differences in most displays of aggression.
  • @anarchival: Aggression, spatial abilities, same-sex attraction, and people v. things appear to be statistically significant gender differences.
  • How do we tell if these differences are biologically determined? Early, cross-cultural, cross-species, related to hormones.
  • @rebeccawatson: Judging by the #CSICON feed I’m not the only one a bit underwhelmed by his interchanging sex & gender, lack of discussion of why did exist

Then Carol Tavris took the podium and demonstrated amply, with humor and incisive language, why she’s a favorite among skeptical speakers.

  • Tavris: “That was a terrific talk, and I have no disagreements.” This will be a “yes, and” talk.
  • No women’s bathroom on the Senate floor until 1993. On the House floor? Last year.
  • A sense of history is very important in understanding biological sex difference–and the research on it.
  • @SarahebKaiser: Carol Tavris is reflecting on how differences [that] were explained in the past…don’t exist anymore. Awareness of bias is important.
  • Men may have a hard-wired preference for the theory that men are hard-wired to be promiscuous.
  • Female monogamy? All the females in the harem of a vasectomized male blackbird still became pregnant.
  • @anarchival: “Why would we need to develop blocker sperm if the female was not, dare I say, promiscuous?”
  • The way we think about gender differences affect the scientific questions we ask–and the answers we get.
  • @anarchival: Tavris cites women’s tendency to wear shoes they can’t walk in as a clear gender difference.
  • @DebGod: Glad Tavris is presenting 2nd for this session. Includes theories about *why* there are differences & how bias shapes conclusions.
  • “Does anyone think Michele Bachmann has the same ‘female approach to the world’ that Michelle Obama has?”
  • @anarchival: When women believed they were not welcome in certain careers their aspirations to enter them diminished, same also happens to men.
  • We see sex differences more than cultural differences because sex is more relevant to those of us sharing a culture.
  • When roles are segregated by gender, it is very, very easy to confuse the requirements of the role for a difference of gender.
  • @DebGod: This Q&A could be verrrrry interesting, even for this crowd…
  • Measuring people’s self-perceptions tells us very little about differences in their behaviors.
  • We must also be careful in how we measure expression of traits. There may be differences in expression but not the trait.
  • Some measures of sex-differences in aggression don’t show up when women are given more freedom (anonymity) in expression.
  • @anarchival: Tavris also points out that in this egalitarian world, the rate of violence by women is rapidly on the rise.
  • @talipa2012: Rotating objects and remembering where things are are so narrowly focused they are inconsequential.
  • When we see differences in brains, we need to confirm that they relate to differences in behavior.
  • Because the brain is dynamic, we must separate differences that are causes from differences that are results.
  • Brains are very complicated and vary widely. Brain studies are particularly in need of replication. Many results not replicated.
  • @SarahebKaiser: It’s easy to claim that you’re “just looking at the data,” but the answers you’re looking for can influence which data you examine.
  • “The whole planet is becoming Sweden.” The status of men and women across the globe is changing rapidly.
  • @_sydleroy: Where was Tavris when Lionel Tiger was giving his talk at Moving Secularism Forward Con?
  • @pzmyers: My new nightmare: that Carol Tavris will announce in a talk that she agrees with me 100%. She completely undercut Lippa.

Then we moved into the question portion of the session. Plenty of the questions or concerns raised by Lippa’s talk had already been addressed by Tavris. There were still some that hadn’t, however, including one that came from Twitter, and CFI’s Lauren Becker was kept busy running the microphone around the room.

  • .@RALindsay asks whether thing-oriented professions may be less accommodating of women’s caretaking duties.
  • @JarregIP: Could you please define what you mean by “men”? You might as well define what you mean by “women” too. I mean while we’re here.
  • @anarchival: Lippa replies many women with requisite abilities for STEM, but not the interest (not sure that cultural climate is the issue).
  • I keep hearing STEM referred to as one thing. How is bio research (high female participation) not thing-oriented?
  • @anarchival: Lippa gives women a back-handed compliment by saying we have broader interests than men while insisting we are more people-oriented.
  • @Sci_Phile: Lippa now teaching the conference goers how to backpedal effectively. Stand behind the data if it is robust.
  • @anarchival: “Historically men went where they could achieve financial security, women went where they could get a job.” #Tavris
  • Tavris: “The question of interest begs the question.” Women’s “interests” have changed as they’ve been allowed into various fields.
  • .@pzmyers: If we’re talking about interest, we have to look not just at workers, but at attrition rates.
  • @anarchival: Question from the audience points out that women who enter STEM in college are overwhelmingly driven out before graduation.
  • @anarchival: Comment from the audience about the gender ratio in this very room. Comments from Tavris and Lindsay about how much it’s improved.
  • Tavris: I said to @BarryKarr, “Barry, where are the women?” He said, “Oh, goody! Would you be a fellow?”
  • @DebGod: Lippa: Women’s spacial ability seems to change over course of their cycle due to hormones.
  • @anarchival: Lippa cites the lack of sex scandals among women politicians as evidence of men’s higher promiscuity. I think it’s tiny sample size.
  • @Sci_Phile: Lippa again stereotyping beyond preliminary data: Large self-reported male sex drive=”gay men are just hornier and more promiscuous”
  • @Sci_Phile: Notice how cautious Tavris is in her assertions (in comparison to Lippa), the mark of a good researcher/speaker.
  • @anarchival: “Enjoy the ones that matter, and ignore the rest.” #genderdifferences #Tavris
  • Tavris: Bulimia may be a culture-bound disorder. We’re now seeing more men with eating disorders. Mentions steroid use.
  • @SciTriGrrl: @szvan I wish I was there! I want to ask how think abt hormones since testosterone is converted to estrogen in brain
  • Lippa: Discussing sex hormones is incredibly complicated and far too easy to oversimplify. Testosterone becomes estrogen in the brains of only some species. Not necessarily in humans. In birds, where testosterone does become estrogen in the brain, it is the masculinizing hormone. This is really complicated.
  • @_sydleroy: Tavris: Children are gender police. “No! Everybody has a penis. Only girls wear barrettes!”
  • @PaulFidalgo: My almost-3-year-old boy, learning that his baby sister has “no winky” says, with great optimism, “But one day, she will have one!”
  • Tavris: The first woman anything, everything she does is a reflection on her gender. Takes ~10% to perceive diversity among women.
  • @RLBevins: Gist of Tavris story, brain surgery isn’t brain surgery compared to many hobbies typically considered human.

I would love to see more sessions done like this. I don’t think they’re comfortable for all the participants, but, well, skepticism itself is typically uncomfortable. It’s very productive, though, as this session was.

Doing Social Science Skepticism Right

5 thoughts on “Doing Social Science Skepticism Right

  1. 2

    I really hope there are videos in the near future too. I agree it was a great presentation method, though, admittedly, this was my first conference so I didn’t know it was anything out of the ordinary. It’s a shame you missed the coffee and conversation portion. There were some interesting topics raised, not the least of which was how good it was that criticism of religion was kept separate from the conference. There was a discussion about how to promote greater diversity in the skeptical movement which prompted a very lengthy side discussion after the conference was over. I plan on putting up a few posts about what was covered in the coffee and conversation segment as soon as I can. I recorded the audio but the quality is poor so I am going to transcribe parts of it when I get the chance.

  2. 4

    […] This section of Rebecca’s talk is about ignoring contradictory evidence. In particular, in the field of evolutionary psychology, it is critical to understand the way behaviors under study have changed over time. Traits that are stable through very different societal structures are much more likely to be genetically determined, and history gives us many more societal structures than we can study in our modern, rapidly globalizing world. If pointing out that history gives us a strong counterpoint to the hypothesized “universality” of a trait is scientific denialism, someone should really be complaining about Carol Tavris’s talk at CSICon. […]

  3. 5

    […] how our default assumptions affect how we describe developmental processes. I also took a moment to appreciate CSICon’s approach to presenting contentious social psychology topics and to point to a blogger who handles these topics exceedingly […]

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