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Gender bias in STEM subjects and Science Fiction

This Daily Mail piece on the evils of feminism has been causing something of a stir. I began to wonder whether Peter Lloyd was secretly a radical feminist hiding under a pseudonym, given that his awful article seemed perfectly calculated to alienate readers – even readers who might think he raises some legitimate concerns. Rather than introduce his argument with a discussion of higher suicide rates or poorer exam grades, Lloyd opens on a belligerent note:

Men are brilliant. Seriously, we are. We invented philosophy, medicine, architecture, cars, trains, helicopters, submarines and the internet. Not to mention the jet engine, IVF, electricity and modern medicine.

If this leaves you with an appetite for more, here’s a link to his new book, Stand by your Manhood.

Here, by contrast, is an interesting and thoughtful attempt to explain why studies of  gender bias in STEM subjects throw up contradictory findings. One study found that women were overlooked in favour of male peers, but another concluded that female candidates were viewed more favourably than equally well-qualified men:

Now everyone gets to cite whichever study accords with their pre-existing beliefs. SoScientific American writes Study Shows Gender Bias In Science Is Real, and any doubt has been deemed unacceptable by blog posts like Breaking: Some Dudes On The Internet Refuse To Believe Sexism Is A Thing. But the new study, for its part, is already producing headlines like The Myth About Women In Science and blog posts saying that it is “enough for everyone who is reasonable to agree that the feminists are spectacular liars and/or unhinged cranks”.

Scott Alexander is the blogger who introduced me to the Motte and Bailey debating technique, and this new post is well worth reading in full, as he speculates about possible variables which might have caused such a striking discrepancy.

Science fiction fans may already be aware of the ongoing row over the Hugo Awards.  These prestigious prizes are decided by a popular vote rather than by a jury, so both the shortlist and the final result can be swayed by zealous campaigning. Here’s a brief recap of the controversy:

In 2015, two groups of science fiction writers, the “Sad Puppies” led by Brad R. Torgersen and Larry Correia, and the “Rabid Puppies” led by Vox Day, each put forward slates of nominations which came to dominate the ballot.[32][33][34][35][36] According to Torgersen, the Sad Puppies campaign is a reaction to what he considers the prevalence of “niche, academic, overtly [leftist]” – as opposed to “fun” – science fiction among award nominations and winners,[32] and in opposition to “an affirmative action award” that preferred female and non-white authors, or works featuring such characters.[37][33] The campaigns triggered an “uproar”[32] among some fans and authors, with three nominees declining their nominations,[32][38] and many people advocating “no award” votes.[37]

I’m inclined to go along with P. Z. Myers on this one:

Unbelievable. He wants purity of the genre: books with rockets on the cover must be entirely about machines and traveling. Books with a guy and an axe on the cover must be about barbarians killing monsters. Don’t you dare change the formula. These books are not allowed to be about race, or colonialism, or sexism, or oppressive social structures. He thinks those are bad things to bring up in a science fiction book.

However it’ s important to distinguish between the ‘Sad Puppies’ and ‘Rabid Puppies’ – Helen Lewis offers some background to Rabid ringleader ‘Vox Day’ in today’s Guardian – and here’s an interesting perspective from Nathaniel, a moderate supporter of the ‘Sad Puppies’ campaign.

… [Brad Torgersen] went out of his way to include diverse writers on the SP3 slate, including not only conservatives and libertarians, but also liberals, communists, and apolitical writers. Even many leading critics of the Sad Puppies (for instance John Scalzi2 and Teresa Nielsen Hayden3) concede that several of the individuals on the Sad Puppies slate were not politically aligned with Sad Puppies. That fact was my favorite part about Sad Puppies: the attempt to reach outside their ideological borders demonstrated an authentic desire to depoliticize the Hugos instead of just claiming them for a new political in-group.

Although gender is not the only bone of contention in the ‘Puppies’ controversy, Nathaniel takes it for his focus in this carefully-researched post, and argues that confirmation bias may make people interpret the relevant data in different ways.  By contrast with Peter Lloyd’s article, this is a civil and constructive piece, whether or not you agree with Nathaniel’s findings.

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