The more I think about it, the more appalled I am that Cordelia Fine’s polemic, Testosterone Rex, won the Royal Society Book Prize for popular science writing. Just two of the five judges (Fortey and Gilbert) are practicing scientists, one is a novelist, and one is a broadcaster. Claudia Hammond, also a broadcaster, has also written popular psychology books and also lectures on health and psychology in London (Wikipedia gives her bona fides as “She was educated at Sussex University in applied psychology, and Surrey University, where she gained a MSc in health psychology, carrying out research into doctor–patient communication in a breast cancer unit”). Gilbert’s defense of the award in light of a negative review of Fine’s book is lame. (Further, several readers pointed out that he and Fine both got PhDs in psychology at University College London within a year of each other, so he may well have known her: a cause for recusal).
My own preference would be to have science books judged by working scientists who are also popular writers. Yes, Fortey is one of those, but my ideal panel would include no broadcasters or popularizers who didn’t actually practice science or at least did so recently. I’d include people like Steve Jones, Brian Cox, Olivia Judson, Nick Lane, and Alice Roberts. While a few journalists can judge both the science and the writing in science writing (Carl Zimmer is a good example), broadcasters and many popularizers aren’t good people for giving out science book awards. After all, the minimal criterion for such awards is that the science in a book be sound.
That’s not the case with Testosterone Rex. As I’ve said several times, while the book has good bits, especially its calling out shoddy research, Fine can’t bring herself to call out shoddy research that supports her book’s hypothesis: that there are no innate biological differences between the male and female brains or bodies caused by hormones. (She’s made her living on the thesis that there are no evolved genetic differences between men and women.) Further, many of the “critiques” that Fine leveled against previous research on sex—including her claim that in humans male variance in reproductive success is equal to that of females (WRONG), as well as her denying of the importance of sexual selection in humans and other species (WRONG)—bespeak a deep confirmation bias derived from The Sexual Blank Slate.
Now I haven’t read the other books in contention, but I have read Fine’s, and it’s hard to believe that this deserves a prize, simply on the grounds of its scientific weaknesses. Why did it win? It’s hard to conclude anything other than that it appealed to the ideological current in biology that deems finding innate differences in behavior, morphology, or preferences between men and women (or ethnic groups) not only a flawed endeavor, but one that promotes sexism (or racism). Most biologists are leftists, of course, and the “both sexes are inherently the same” trope, flawed as it is, appeals to many progressives. But as I’ve said before, any such differences should have no bearing on the moral and social equality of men and women. It’s dangerous to base your arguments for equality on biological facts, because those facts might turn on you. The moral arguments, in contrast, won’t.
A new post on a website called Yeyo’s Corner, “Why sexual selection matters and why Cordelia fine is wrong“, lists many of the familiar errors in her book, and also concludes that the prize was awarded not for science, but for an ideology congenial to the judges. I’m a bit hesitant to highlight this essay, but only because the author is anonymous and the writing is rather dire, with many run-on sentences and bits that seem like a stream of consciousness. (I suspect that English isn’t the writer’s native language.) But the scientific critique is sound, and Yeyo, whoever he/she is, isn’t afraid to call out the Royal Society for awarding the book prize on grounds of politics instead of science. Here are a few excerpts:
In her quest to deny that biology is responsible for sex differences in behavior Cordelia Fine has a huge advantage, she benefits from that fact (which the award has made clear) that there are certain areas of research where science doesn’t work as usual. With academia being overwhelmingly liberal and leftist there is a clear tendency to favor certain hypotheses over others regarding what causes human behavior. Nowhere is this more clear than when it comes to race or sex differences. That there are genetic differences between the sexes or different human populations that could explain the different outcomes that we see on a societal level is simply indigestible to many academics.
To some degree this is understandable, there’s no dearth of misogynist and racist alt-right trolls who, instead of acknowledging that huge individual variation should mean that nobody deserves to be discriminated against based on gender or race, propagate for ending women’s suffrage and to reinstate Jim Crow. One just has to spend 5 minutes reading certain PUA and alt-right blogs to understand where the reluctance to touch these topics comes from. But it would also be a mistake to give the alt-right monopoly on these questions and better to acknowledge them and emphasize that variation within groups means no individual deserves to be discriminated against on basis of group averages. The shock of Trump winning the presidency appears to have reinforced this already existing taboo even further. Therefore, in large parts of academia, any biological explanation will always be disregarded, at least as long as there is an alternative way to explain the data.
. . . Gender blank slatism is an exception to this rule however, no matter how many wild assumptions, unsupported claims or ad hoc hypotheses are needed to explain away new incriminating data and why the annoying sex differences are so stubbornly persistent (even in countries who desperately try to engineer them away), the social constructionist theory still reigns supreme in the humanities and most of the social sciences. As Geoffrey Miller pointed out, no gender feminist he’s ever met has been able to coherently answer the question “What empirical findings would convince you that psychological sex differences evolved?” (the answer is of course that there are none), because no matter the finding there is always a rationalization, however unlikely, that will ensure that gender blank slatism remains unscathed. And there is nobody more trusted than Cordelia Fine to provide them with the mental gymnastics needed to keep their faith intact.
Pretty much all of Cordelia Fine’s writings are exercises in creating these so called ad hoc hypotheses. Testosterone Rex has already been critically reviewed by Jerry Coyne, Gregory Cochran, Stuart Ritchie and Robert King. [JAC: King’s review is the most incisive.] But in light of the recent award by The Royal Society I felt that a thorough review of sexual selection and its biological underpinnings might be in place, just to highlight what kind of book the world’s oldest existing science academy nowadays considers worthy of a scientific award.
You can read the science bit yourself; I’ll just jump to Yeyo’s conclusion:
If Sam Gilbert and his fellow jury members keep insisting that Testosterone Rex is a deserved winner for accurately pointing out that sex differences aren’t categorical and that ecological conditions matter as well, which seems to be the motivation, it is strange that they decided to award a book that does such an abysmal job at communicating that message. She describes the foundations of sexual selection theory and Bateman’s principle as being in a state of turmoil when the truth is that the evidence is stronger than ever before. Reviews in the press make it clear that lay people reading this book are left with the impression that testosterone doesn’t really matter and that sexual selection is a myth. Why award Cordelia Fine with a prize that is intended to reward the best science writing for a non-specialist audience if the non-specialist audience misunderstood what Fine was trying to communicate? Not to mention that her use of ad hoc hypotheses, based on unproven assumptions, to explain away well established science are analogous to the favorite tactics of the proponents of intelligent design. If the Royal Society recognizes that sexual selection and testosterone is relevant for human behavior their choice couldn’t have been more mistaken. The most likely explanation is that the choice is based on the erroneous idea that fighting sex discrimination requires pretending that average sex differences do not exist. The only remaining alternative, that the world’s oldest science academy has abandoned Charles Darwin for pseudoscientific gender theory by virtue of sincere belief, is just too depressing to even consider.
If someone wrote a book called “Savannah Rex: Why Evolutionary Psychology is Complete Bunk,” it would probably be a shoo-in for next year’s prize.