Saturday, December 12, 2009

A great example of unconscious bias


Found this by way of Drugmonkey, who cited this squabble started over Dawkins' latest book.

I'm staying out of the fray on the Dawkins' argument. Basically it's the same old argument about whether it's more important to be inclusive or "rigorous". Personally, I don't have a good answer. Part of me wants to say it's up to Dawkins to do whatever he wants, it's his anthology. I don't have to buy it (or any of his books, to be frank I can't stand his writing style).

And part of me says if you're going to do that, Dawkins, then you can't be defensive about your choices when people attack you for them. And if you're going to be defensive about it, then maybe that means you realize you were wrong? Isn't that sort of what happened with Larry Summers (supposedly)? I know I have gotten an earful myself on this blog from time to time, and I can (almost always?) see both sides of the argument, but it doesn't mean I'm going to join the other side.

Mostly I just thought this particular comment was so amazing, so brutally honest and insightful, that I had to reprint it here (bold highlight is mine):

12. steve Says:
December 6th, 2009 at 10:57 am

I just looked through my bookshelf and realised that there isn’t a single female author on it (not counting textbooks). Why? I think back to the female authors I have read – those that were recommended to me, those that rated highly on various rankings etc. I’ve just never really enjoyed them that much.

Once I had a friend give me ten excerpts from books I hadn’t read, and I ranked them in terms of what I preferred. Without knowing the authors, I still put the female authors at the bottom.

This ***does not*** mean that women are poor authors. It means that my (probably excessively) masculine brain doesn’t like something about how many women write. Maybe I just lack an acquired taste, I don’t think you can call me sexist for that – remember, even without knowing the gender of the author, I preferred male authors. And there definitely is a difference – Dickens was able to spot that George Eliot was actually a female (although not many other people did).

If I prefer reading fiction written by men, then perhaps this also translates to science (although definitely not the peer reviewed journal kind), although I am less certain of that. I’m pretty sure that it does translate to the kind of stuff I find in the blogosphere. So if a larger portion of the readers are men, and men were to have an affinity for male blogging style, this may explain why the rankings come out the way they are, and why someone like Dawkins might prefer science prose written by men.

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At 7:44 AM, Blogger daisy mae said...

did i just read what i think i did?

i'm not going to go back and double check, though. right now i'm busy picking up the shrapnel of my skull and trying to put my teeny-tiny, female-prose enjoying brain back into the space between my ears, because my head just exploded.

i've never given a good goddamn about the gender of who's written my textbooks. but in a quick survey, i'd say a good 30% of them (chemistry, physics, and biology textbooks, too) are written solely by, or co-authored by, women.


At 7:49 AM, Blogger Rosiecat said...

Ha! I too cannot stand Richard Dawkins's prose, so I avoid reading his stuff, even though my impression is that I probably agree with a lot of his opinions. Is it wrong for a professional biologist to avoid Dawkins? Should I read his stuff just for the sake of my career?

At 10:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It could be true. I know I've read some crappy writing by guys that I knew was right but I just didn't "like" style wise. Such as Dawkins.

At 12:03 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

yes, the amusing corollary of this is that maybe the reason more women don't want to stay in science is because we're all sexist and we can't stand the writing of men who dominate the field?

hahaha. Just kidding. If this were true, it would have an effect at all times in the career, so then it could be the real explanation for why women don't major in science!

Except, women do major in biology and chemistry about 50% of the time. So that would mean that the authors in those fields are better (or there are more women authors, or both)?

Then if we followed this not-very-logical argument to its inevitable conclusion, crappy writing by male authors would be the explanation for why more women don't major in physics, math, engineering, or computer science. I know it explains why I didn't major in physics, math, engineering or computer science. I HATED the way those textbooks were written.


I finally understand now. It was not the crappy teaching or the way my male peers treated me. It was the WRITING! I feel so much better now.

seriously though, this might also explain part of why the 6% increase in publishing by women authors in that study of the journal of ecology when the author list was anonymized.

I wonder how many reviewers think this way as they are reading a manuscript:

a) I don't like this writing
b) I suspect this author is [insert gender or ethnicity or citizenship bias here]
c) Let me confirm my suspicion by checking the author list
d) Aha! I was right. Now I am justified in thinking that this writing isn't very good
e) Glad I reinforced my assumption and can now rationalize not putting any more effort into making constructive comments on this manuscript

At 10:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A 6% increase is not likely to be statistically significant. This is what happens when you refuse to read the mathematics textbooks.

This is also the reason I think Geometry should be taught compulsorily in every year in school. This is not because we need to raise the average level of geometry skills, but because geometry gives you the discipline of following a train of thought ... right from the Axioms, the lemmata, all the way to the proof and the corollary.

A lot of the flimsy feminist rants would disappear if only this kind of disciplined logic were to become the norm. Bear in mind that most of these rants are coming from well educated, professional female scientists who are contributing successfully to their field at all levels.

It isn't difficult. In a way; logical is easy...

At 10:15 AM, Blogger yolio said...

From Wikipedia:

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which "people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it".

This is what of I think of when I read statements like the one you posted.

At 12:32 PM, Blogger OverEngineered said...

Anon 10:02 am, perhaps you should check the research behind the "flimsy feminist rant":

Amber E. Budden, Tom Tregenza, Lonnie W. Aarssen, Julia Koricheva, Roosa Leimu, Christopher J. Lortie, Double-blind review favours increased representation of female authors, Trends in Ecology & Evolution, Volume 23, Issue 1, January 2008, Pages 4-6.

before going off on your own flimsy rant. YFS's can be backed up with a p-value (0.01).

At 10:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Going through my bookshelf, I notice there are almost no male authors in it (excluding textbooks). I've read some books written by male authors, but I never really liked them so much. I'm sure they write just fine for a male audience, but my feminine brain finds their writing truncated and shallow.

I wouldn't be surprised if this translated to science, causing me to rate the publications of female authors more highly. I'm not particularly worried about the consequences of that, since science is still a male-dominated profession. When it ceases to be, I will attempt to redress any inherent bias I may have. But for now I'll continue with my judgment that female authors are just better than male authors.

And I am not making this up, I read almost no male authors, and not out of conscious choice. I just don't like their books, with very rare exception.

At 8:25 AM, Blogger a physicist said...

A six percent increase could definitely be significant. If the economy expanded by 6% in 2010, would you hear the news reports saying "but we don't think this is statistically significant" ?? If a six-foot-tall person increased in height by 6%, that's 4 inches, is that not measurable?

The way social science studies are done requires use of statistics; with a large enough sample size you can indeed conclude a 6% increase is significant and real.

To paraphrase "anonymous", This is what happens when you read lots of mathematics textbooks but not textbooks on statistical analysis.

At 8:17 AM, Blogger x.- said...

Hmmm, interesting.


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