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Galileo reborn

“This week Short, probably Britain’s greatest-ever chess player, suggested that women were biologically worse at chess and that “rather than fretting about inequality, we should just get on with it.” The reaction has been predictably bitter.”

[…]

“I like Nigel Short. I went to see him play his 1993 world championship game against Kasparov. But I’m dismayed he said this — even if it turned out he was right — because it can become self-fulfilling.”

Tom Whipple, who writes on scientific matters for the Times.

*

“Eppur si muove!” (“And yet it moves!”)

– Some say these words were muttered defiantly by Galileo Galilei after he was forced by the Inquisition to recant his theory that the Earth goes round the sun.

*

“I want more women to do computer science, not because of my views on gender equality but because I want more people in general to do science. The chess debate will make that harder. It takes enough courage as it is to decide you want to become the only girl on your computer science course. Hearing that you are also hard-wired to be worse at it is not going to help.”

Tom Whipple, who writes on scientific matters for the Times.

*

“In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration”

Thomas Henry Huxley, known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his robust defence of Darwin’s theory of evolution in public debate.

*

“Whatever biological influence on mathematical ability there may or may not be, there is indisputably a far greater influence: culture. Publicly debating biology directly influences that culture — for the worse.”

Tom Whipple, who writes on scientific matters for the Times.

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33 comments to Galileo reborn

  • lucklucky

    Tom Whipple a political writer.

  • Niall Kilmartin

    “Publicly debating biology directly influences that culture — for the worse.”

    Should Mr Whipple not therefore, by his own logic, be silent? Or is drawing logic inferences from chattering class remarks another of thosee things that influence culture for the worse. 🙂

  • “Whatever biological influence on mathematical ability there may or may not be, there is indisputably a far greater influence: culture. Publicly debating biology directly influences that culture — for the worse.”

    So… if I grok what this bloke is saying… “determining what is true does not matter, how culture is affected by any discussion about what is true is what matters”.

    Is that what he is saying? He does not want Nigel Short to say that “women were biologically worse at chess” because he does not want a culture that accepts that is true, regardless of the truth?

    I have no opinion at all on the original point btw.

  • Myno

    Even if men are notoriously poorer at bearing children than women, we ought not bring this into the public spotlight, for fear of how it will make men feel inferior.

  • Runcie Balspune

    Isn’t this all a bit academic now? Seeing as mobile phone chess apps can beat grand masters, which is why grand masters use them

  • Fred Z

    Tom Whipple: “I can teach calculus to a horse because my culture beats the horse’s biology.”

  • Regional

    In Astraya a journalist has coined a term, Frightbat for mad self obsessed whimen. They demand that men like him do courses on how to appreciate them, death take me now.

  • Jim Jones

    Women do not need to be good at solving problems, they can just manipulate men into solving them.

  • It takes enough courage as it is to decide you want to become the only girl on your computer science course.

    Ha! Take that Ayaan Hirsi Ali! Read it and weep, Rosa Parks! Real courage is deciding you want to do a course where you’ll perhaps only get to see other women outside of lectures.

  • Thailover

    Ya gotta love those who insist that “things will be harder if we know the truth” (implying we should just play along with the official feel-good narrative). Well, come to think of it, no, we really don’t gotta love those who insist we should ignore reality and play along for the sake of someone’s worshipful FEELINGS. (Peace be upon it).

    Just this morning the subject came up about rich grown men “getting away” with having sex with 16yr old girls. I thought it was a brilliant idea, to his shock and horror. I explained that girls mature must faster than boys and are mature emotionally, sexually and physically years ahead of boys, and that for 99.9999…% of human existence, people have been having sex at least in our mid teens and our world hasn’t crumbled yet. His colorful retort included thoughts that I’m a pedophile. I then reminded Mr. Wonderful that a pedophile is someone sexually attracted to someone who is pre-pubescent and that no one is talking about 10yr old children. The conversation didn’t end on a happy note because some people really have difficulty with reality. In reflection, I might change my on-line nom de guerre to The Messenger, since people so often want to shoot me for delivering pre-existing facts.

  • Whipple is saying: The proles can’t handle the truth.

    Trying to get in his head, I’d guess he’s feeling fear that if everybody understood that women were under-represented in the high-IQ end of the bell curve then some people would use that as a excuse for all sorts of sexist behavior. People can’t handle the group average vs individual score idea so we ban all mention of group differences just to be safe. It isn’t about stopping women feeling inferior, it is about restricting a dangerous idea that could be used for nasty purposes. In this area, he thinks he’s promoting women in science and that this is more important than talking truth about the bell curve.

    The unusual thing here is that Whipple is open about the mechanism of political correctness. It’s like he broke the fourth wall. He’s definitely a science writer – a political writer would have stuck to the narrative and just denounced Short.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Short’s comment is a bit out of date. In the 1970s, no women at all had ever even approached the grandmaster level in chess. This was true, even in the USSR, which to a significant degree encouraged or pushed women into non-traditional activities, and where chess was enormously popular.

    There was speculation that there might be some gender-related quirk that interfered with developing chess at the highest levels. One suggestion was that women could not focus as tightly on a game to the exclusion of all directions, because women were “wired” to listen for possible distress in children.

    But since that time, a fair number of women have become grandmasters, including the Polgar sisters. So that theory has been dismissed.

    There are definitely cultural factors in the relative prominence of men and women in chess. There may also be a “distribution effect”: even if the medians for men and women are the same, the spread is often greater for men, so that nearly all the very high (and very low) examples are men.

  • Just this morning the subject came up about rich grown men “getting away” with having sex with 16yr old girls

    I do not understand. 16 is perfectly legal over the vast majority of the planet’s surface, so unless you are in some shithole like California, what is there to ‘get away’ with? I lost mine at 13 btw and never felt any need to see the older woman thrown in jail 😉

    But that said, can I claim to be a “rape survivor” now? Does that qualify me for profitable victimhood and special protected status? 😀

  • Jake Haye

    Unfortunately for Nigel Short his answer invites the follow-up question of why only ~3 of the 1000 grandmasters in the world are black (none of whom are women).

    But since that time, a fair number of women have become grandmasters, including the Polgar sisters. So that theory has been dismissed.
    Rich Rostrom April 26, 2015 at 7:35 am

    The strawman theory that it is biologically impossible for women to become grandmasters has been dismissed? Yay!

  • If a person really loves doing something that is physically possible (note to Myno), he or she should just go ahead and do it, statistics be damned – while keeping in mind that he or she may not achieve the top-dog status because of statistics or other factors.

  • Heddy Lamarr (an actress) invented spread spectrum technology in 1942. But – in general women don’t do well in technology. For a lot of reasons.

    My daughter graduated in the top of her class in Chemical Engineering from a well known school. I like discussing thermodynamics with her. But she declines to enter the field (for now) because those inhabiting it are such nerds (low social skills). She really wants to be an actress.

    I would never think of denying a woman entry in the STEM area. But I would not expect a lot of them to enter and even fewer to do well.

  • TimR

    We definitely need more high IQ actors.

  • In an ideal world, people would ignore other people’s sex (as well as their own), other than for the purpose of, well, sex. Oh well.

  • Draw two bell curves, one on top of the other. Make the first one steep, with most of the values gathered in the center, and very slender edges. Make the second one flatter, with much thicker edges and a lower center than the first.

    Now imagine that those two curves represent two populations’ skill at some task (chess, or knitting, or whatever). Even if the population of curve 1 (the steeper curve) has a better average ability at the task, there will be many more members of population 2 at the extreme end of the curve.

    I believe this fairly represents the gender distribution with regard to highly skilled tasks. For average chessplayers playing in a park, there may be no meaningful difference between male and female ability. At the extremity of competence (and incompetence!), there will be many more men than women. Empirically, we see this, not only with chess, but with many (all?) tasks that require high degrees of mental specialization. We also see many more homeless men, and many more men in prisons.

    This makes sense as well from a biological perspective. Sexual selection insures that most women will get to reproduce, while only a subset of the men will get to do so. Thus, evolution tends to occur more in the male of the species, and the female gets to select which attributes of the male are worth preserving (I am talking on a species-wide level, of course. Individually selection is complicated by a great variety of factors). We would expect to see more variance in the male than in the female, for precisely this reason.

    Naturally, the above line of thought makes me a raging misogynist, and probably a racist too.

  • staghounds

    “Publicly disagreeing with my views about biology directly influences that culture — for the worse.”

    There, fixed it.

    AND, he has a point and a reasonable one. Even/especially if it is true that one broad category is genetically fitted to be somewhat better at something than another broad category, there’s something unpleasant about saying it.

    At least to children and people in that group. It discourages effort and contributes, only slightly, to a narrower horizon for everyone. Even if they are rare, people who beat the odds inspire us to strive uphill. That’s something worth fostering.

    You’ll never know how many people get discouraged, or are actively balked, bu “that’s not for you”.

  • Tedd

    Ferox has hit on the key point. I doubt that his or her imagined normal distributions (and the evolutionary explanation that goes along with them) are accurate, but the specific shape of the distributions is unimportant. The factor used to divide people into the two groups is also unimportant (unless it is something that clearly correlates, such as age when making a height distribution). The important point is that people are individuals, not distributions, so the individuals near the tails of any distribution are just as much part of the set as those near the middle. Perhaps equally important is that any such distribution is merely a slice through the multi-dimensional parameter space that makes up all the possible characteristics of people. Slice it differently and the results is very different.

    This is why Whipple’s point is so tragically wrong-headed. He’s right that talking about biology — or anything in science — changes the culture, and that is exactly why we should be doing it. Unlike culture, science is self-correcting and has a strong tendency to be true. If you think of the cases where the mix of science and culture has gone wrong — the eugenics movement in the early 20th century, for example, or the anti-vaccination movement of the early 21st century — it is generally either because culture got the science wrong or because culture failed to defer to the liberty of individuals (or both). So what Whipple ought to be pushing for is more robust debate about the science, so that we get it right, and more emphasis on people as individuals, not as members of sets. Don’t break the part that works to make it fit the part that’s broken.

  • So what Whipple ought to be pushing for is more robust debate about the science

    Why? What is so important about the science of women’s chess abilities? I can certainly see your point with regard to vaccinations, but other stuff?

  • Tedd

    Alisa:

    Sorry, I meant science in general, not this subject specifically. I should probably have said “science,” not “the science.”

    But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with studying differences between people based on race or gender. Whether it’s a priority or not I couldn’t say. I’m sure there are more pressing issues, but then you never know beforehand which discoveries are going to be important.

  • Veryretired

    I happen to enjoy the company of really intelligent women.

    My grandparents managed several small businesses over the course of their lives together, and gramps always let gramma handle the money.

    My mother was the control desk person in several accounting departments, and everything went over her desk to be reviewed and double-checked. She was called into more than a few high-level meetings to explain how things actually worked, and what they cost.

    My first wife, a very fine lady, was a hospital supervisor at 24, and was then assigned the task of working with the architects and technical people to design and build a new cardiac care/intensive care unit, which she supervised for several years.

    A woman I had a relationship with for a few years was a phi beta cappa, and left to take an analysts job with NASA in Houston. I was unable to make the move with her, more’s the pity.

    My wife of over 30plus years has a master’s in management, is a human resource manager who specializes in custom computer data bases for the various personnel issues that her organization requires, and is beyond any doubt the most intelligent person I have ever met.

    My daughter is the finance manager for a couple of major public facilities, at age 23, and is still working on her degree, having been interrupted, joyfully, by the birth and infancy of my oldest grandson, who is now in school full time.

    Last year we went together to buy her a new, more economical car, and when the dealing started she took out her MacPro and dealt the salesman, and then his manager/closer, right out of their offices.

    When we signed the papers, the deal had several features usually reserved for repeat customers, although she had never had that kind of car, or visited that dealer, before.

    Don’t bother me with “women this” or “men that”. I only deal with real people, and they each have a name, and talents, that belong to them, and them alone.

  • The only thing we can be absolutely, positively sure of is that if more women take up chess, the rules of chess will eventually be changed.

  • I used to play competitive chess in high school (at a pretty low level, I never got a FIDE rating).

    In every tournament I was ever in, there was a woman’s prize section. It worked in one of two ways: (1) Women could choose, but were not compelled, to compete in the women’s division, or (2) Women competed in the same division as everyone else, but were eligible for extra prizes in addition to the primary prizes, by virtue of their gender. In either case, they played in the general pool (that is, I have never seen a tournament where the women only played other women).

    That’s hardly discrimination, and that was in the late 80’s. Yet today, there are still hardly any women at all in the top chess rankings.

    Nevertheless, apparently it’s still badthink, verboten, to even consider that there is some kind of biological difference being expressed at the highest level of chess competence.

    We have discarded Occam’s Razor (the explanation which uses the fewest assumptions is best) for Occam’s Nail File (if there is a gender difference that reflects unfavorably upon women, discrimination is the only allowable explanation).

  • Nicholas (Self-Sovereignty) Gray

    Alisa, in my ideal world, we would all be good-looking, incredibly robust, and would be jumping from one bed, and partner, to another every few hours! I like my ideal world better!

  • To be a chess grandmaster, one has to have both a large amount of ability and a large amount of application. The latter will, IMHO, be viewed as obsessive by many – including me – though tolerable in a small number of people. Perhaps women overall are more motivated to find betterdifferent balance in their lives.

    Concerning such differences as there are between men and women on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), these are things that are (more) deterministic and more regular in their mechanisms. They are thus less typical of society (with its patches of irrationality). Maybe women are more attuned to coping with society as it is.

    Perhaps, even, evolution has given us (probably all animal species) the means to acquire better contributions for both the immediate (with its needs for coping with some irrationality, and other unknowns or inconsistencies) and the futuristic (with its greater need for abstraction, largely through time-consuming rational analysis and then even more time-consuming rational synthesis).

    How do we know that the current differences (such as they are) have not evolved as the best mechanism for survival (and improvement) of the species?

    Unless we know to the contrary, would it not be imprudent to insist on change, through cultural interference now – and perhaps genetic interference in the future.

    Best regards

  • Nigel, I was nodding in agreement until the last line in your comment – what do you mean by ‘cultural interference’?

    Don’t bother me with “women this” or “men that”. I only deal with real people, and they each have a name, and talents, that belong to them, and them alone.

    Indeed, VR.

  • Alisa writes:

    – what do you mean by ‘cultural interference’?

    I was thinking of pretty much any incentives to women or disincentives men, to study, and subsequently work in, STEM fields. And I was thinking particularly of action by government.

    Such actions could be special grants to women, higher course fees for men, different minimum A-level grades for university entrance, gender-biased quotas by subject in educational establishments (through pressure on educational establishments, eg by government funding allocations), differential government funding for apprenticeship schemes, and so on.

    All of these are forms of positive discrimination. We also have seen, over the years, positive discrimination on grounds of race, sexual orientation and low parental income. Whilst I am not against such positive discrimination, at modest levels for a fairly short period of time, such actions should be limited. IIRC from my university physics course starting in 1971, the asking A-level grades for men were BBC and for women BCC (so modest positive discrimination). Continuation of the same sort of action after 40+ years must surely fall into that definition of stupidity: doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome.

    Personally, I am delighted with anyone taking a serious interest in STEM, and contingent and associated societal issues, irrespective of earning a living from that, and irrespective of any gender bias. I see the problems with STEM uptake and understanding as being more fundamental than gender bias. And sadly I see national and other cultural differences, with the UK doing much worse than Germany, Italy and many other nations in appreciation of the contribution of STEM and how better to understand the contribution of both STEM skills and non-STEM skills.

    Best regards

  • […] – Ferox Ludum, commenting on Samizdata. […]

  • “The chess debate will make that harder. It takes enough courage as it is to decide you want to become the only girl on your computer science course. Hearing that you are also hard-wired to be worse at it is not going to help.”

    I do have sympathy with this. We should be careful not to come across as assholes about it; it’s bad marketing and polarises people into wanting legislation to protect women from evil libertarians. But it’s obvious the answer is not to make certain discussions off-limits, but to remind people that:

    “If a person really loves doing something that is physically possible, he or she should just go ahead and do it, statistics be damned – while keeping in mind that he or she may not achieve the top-dog status because of statistics or other factors.” — as Alisa puts it, and that:

    “people are individuals, not distributions”, as Tedd says.

    Making positive points like that is good strategy, imo.