Category Archives: Society

Is peer review biased against women?

In astrophysics, time-allocation committees allocate the time available on major telescopes and satellites. Facilities such as the Hubble Space Telescope are often over-subscribed by factors of 4 to 10, and writing proposals that win time in peer review is crucial to people’s careers.

I’ve recently had my first experience of serving on a “dual-anonymous” time-allocation committee, in which all the proposals are reviewed without knowing the proposers’ names.

The trend to dual-anonymous review started with an analysis of 18 years of proposals to use Hubble. The crucial data showed that, over more than a decade, the success rate for proposals with a woman as principal investigator was lower (at 19%) than for proposals led by men (at 23%). That 20% difference in success rate then disappeared when proposals were reviewed without knowing the proposer’s names.

Since then, the study has been widely quoted as an example of either conscious or unconscious bias against women, and many time-allocation committees have now moved to dual-anonymous reviewing.

Call me a heretic, but I suspect that the findings actually show a different kind of bias: a bias towards well-known names. We all have such a bias. It’s why brand names are so crucial to marketing; it’s why advertisers spend billions on promoting the names of their products.

If (as is true) well-known, late-career “names” in the field tend to be dominated by men, whereas (as is also true) early-career researchers tend to be more balanced in gender, then a bias towards well-known names would itself account for the success rate of male-led proposals being 20% higher, even if there were no bias against women per se (see footnote).

This suggestion is actually supported by the Hubble study: “[Stefanie] Johnson and her graduate student, Jessica Kirk, found no evidence of gender bias in the preliminary grading that determined which proposals made it to the discussion stage. It was only in the in-person discussions that bias reared its head, and Johnson and Kirk noted a potential reason for it: Much of the in-person discussion on a given proposal focused on the track record of the applicant and colleagues, rather than on the science he or she was proposing to do”.

It is obvious that such a process would suffer from well-known-name bias. One can then ask whether such a bias is a good thing, after all, the established names have presumably acquired that status by repeatedly demonstrating that they can do good science. On the other hand, science is often driven by fresh ideas from the youthful. This could be argued either way, but a process that keeps the “names” on their toes by forcing them to compete on a level playing field is no bad thing.

Why, then, is the gender balance very different between early-career researchers and late-career names? One obvious explanation might be sexist bias against women, particularly in past decades when now-senior names started out. I suspect, however, that the biggest reason is that academia has a career structure which leads to capable early-career researchers being less likely to pursue senior status if they are women.

Establishing a successful academic career is pretty much a rat-race, involving ongoing competition for grants and resources against 10-to-1 competition, often through a series of fixed-term, post-doc contracts with little job security, often moving between institutions to chase opportunities, and all the while ensuring that one produces a stream of good-quality publications. Notably, that is all happening at the same stage in life when many will want to start and support a young family. The structure of academia forces people to prioritise one or the other, and it’s no surprise that there might be a systematic difference between men and women in making that choice.

To summarise: is the move to dual-anonymous peer review a good thing? Probably yes. Does non-anonymous peer review suffer from a sexist bias? Likely not (though it is likely biased towards established names). Does the structure of academia make it easy for researchers with young families? Definitely not. In particular, the necessity of moving to institutions that match ones research speciality, or simply to find an available job, often requires a spouse willing to prioritise their partner’s career over their own.

Footnote: This is an example of Simpson’s paradox. Suppose that a quarter of the proposals are submitted by “senior names”, which are 65:35 male-to-female, and which have a 20% chance of success. The rest of the proposals have a 50:50 gender balance, and a 15% chance of success. A quick calculation shows that this reproduces the same 20% advantage in proposals submitted by men, even if there is no actual sexist bias in the evaluations.

Twitter bans, misgendering and free speech

I am the latest to fall foul of Twitter’s attempts to impose a particular ideology by labelling any dissent as “hateful”. I Tweet only occasionally with only a small number of “followers”, and so a month-old Tweet of mine would be seen by almost no-one unless they were deliberately searching for Tweets to be “offended” by.

The Tweet that supposedly amounted to “hateful conduct” is this one, which I reproduce here in the (slight) hope that doing so might irritate the sort of person who reports such Tweets:

Continue reading

The European Court guts free-speech protections

Just as Ireland votes to repeal its blasphemy laws, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled in favour of Austrian blasphemy laws. They’ve upheld the conviction of a woman who was fined for calling Muhammed a “paedophile”, a reference to his marriage to Aisha, which according to mainstream Islamic tradition occured when she was six, and was consummated when she was nine.

I presume that the underlying logic goes like this. In keeping with trendy modern thought, they analyse everything in terms of power structures. Muslims in Austria are mostly a relatively recent immigrant community and are non-White, therefore they are “oppressed”. The convicted woman is a member of the Austrian “Freedom Party”, who are opposed to immigration, are regarded as “far right”, and are mostly White. Therefore they are the “oppressors”. And it’s the job of a Human Rights court to support the oppressed against the oppressors, so that’s how they ruled.

The convoluted excuse they came up with is that Muhammed continued to be married to Aisha when she was an adult, and indeed had sexual relations with other women, and therefore was not “primarily” attracted to under-age girls, and therefore the term “paedophile” is an unjustified insult. (Never mind that the vast majority of people who rightly get called “paedophiles” also have sex with adults.)

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Theos Think Tank have been polling about religious violence

Theos Think Tank have been asking people whether they regard religions as violent. By their own admission, they didn’t entirely like the results.

Nearly half (47%) agreed that “the world would be a more peaceful place if no one was religious”. Fully 70% said that: “Most of the wars in world history have been caused by religions”.

Faced with that, Theos’s Nick Spencer took some comfort from the fact that “only 32% agreed that religions were inherently violent”. Only? So one-in-three British people thinks that religions are inherently violent and this merits an “only”? Continue reading

Human rights rest only on human advocacy

Are human rights anything more than legal conventions? asks John Tasioulas, Professor of Politics, Philosophy and Law at King’s College London.

Isn’t the answer “obviously not”? Human rights are collective agreements, statements about what sort of society we want to live in, and of how we want people to be treated. As such, their justification and standing derives from the advocacy of people. Anything more than that is mere rhetoric, “nonsense on stilts”, as Jeremy Bentham explained long ago.

But, as with morals, people get unhappy about the idea that their feelings on the matter are all there is. People would really like human rights to be laws of nature, objective obligations that we ought to follow regardless. Wouldn’t that put them on a sounder footing? Continue reading

Attorney General Jeff Sessions scores 8 out of 20 on Religious Freedom

The US attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has issued a memo directing government bodies on how to interpret religious freedom. Unfortunately Sessions misinterprets religious liberty as granting religious people greater rights than the non-religious have. This is a violation of the deeper principle of treating all citizens equally, regardless of their religious views.

Viewed from the stance of equality we can properly understand religious freedom as a form of free speech. That is, you may espouse your religious views, and if you have a general right to do something you may do that same thing with added religious content. Further, the state may not treat you any less favourably owing to that religious content, but nor may it treat you more favourably.

From that perspective, let’s score Sessions’s memo, in which he declares 20 “principles of religious liberty”. Continue reading

Should Nobel Prizes go to teams?

The 2017 Nobel Prize for Physics has gone to members of the LIGO consortium for the detection of gravitational waves, namely to Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne and Barry Barish. But the contributions of many hundreds of people were necessary for the success of LIGO and so it can be argued that the restriction to three people is wrong and that future Nobel Prizes should go to teams.

Professor Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, told BBC correspondent Pallab Gosh that: “LIGO’s success was owed to hundreds of researchers. The fact that the Nobel Prize committee refuses to make group awards is causing increasingly frequent problems and giving a misleading impression of how a lot of science is actually done”.

Rees is right, of course, but would changing it be a good thing? It would mean that nearly all future Nobels in physics would go to teams, either simply to a named team or to a list of team members that could amount to hundreds.

I’m not sure this would be a good change. Continue reading

On Title IX, sexual misconduct, logical fallacies, and due process versus ideology

Suppose I made the claim that: “Only 6% of reports of rape lead to a criminal conviction, therefore 94% of rape reports are made up”. I would, rightly, be howled down for having committed a gross fallacy. It would be explained to me that accusations of rape often revolve around one person’s word against another’s, which makes them very hard to prove to the criminal standard of proof. Thus many accusations that do not lead to criminal convictions are still most likely true.

Now suppose I instead made the claim that “only 2% of accusations of rape are proven to be false, therefore 98% of accusations of rape are true”. This claim is widely made (example), yet it is just as fallacious and for the same reason. Just as it is usually hard to prove rape claims true, it is also hard to prove them false; many claims cannot be proven either way.

Yet, under Title IX codes in American colleges, the claim that nearly all accusations are true is used to justify a process that more or less presumes an accused to be guilty from the outset, with little need for due process. Afterall, if there is only a 1-in-50 chance that the accused male is innocent, then the accusation is pretty much sufficient in itself. Given that, a mere “preponderance of evidence”, defined as a 51% versus 49% likelihood, is all that is needed to expel a student from college for sexual misconduct, something that would always be on their record and likely blight their career prospects.

Yet this “nearly all accusations are true” claim has no basis in proven fact, it is purely ideological. Continue reading