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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten
Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference - Cordelia Fine This is a remarkably good book, and anyone who's remotely interested in claims that there might be inherent differences in mental function between men and women should read it. It's insightful, carefully researched, well-written and often very funny. And if it doesn't make you change your mind about at least a few things in this area, you are either a remarkably knowledgable person or an incurable bigot.

I had read a few books and articles that touched on the subject of inherent gender differences, and I'm afraid I had swallowed them rather uncritically. Without understanding any of the details, I had absorbed the vague idea that science had now established, with the help of modern neuro-imaging techniques, that there were clear differences between male and female brains. Men had stronger spatial and mathematical skills, and women had stronger verbal and emotional skills, and this all dovetailed sensibly with various biological and evolutionary stories.

Fine, who works in psychology and appears to know the literature well, demonstrates that this story absolutely fails to stand up to critical examination. The science of gender differences turns out to be very bad science indeed; it seems that everyone has an agenda, and is willing to do whatever it takes to advance it. Researchers carry out poorly designed experiments with inadequate numbers of subjects, and then draw sweeping conclusions from differences which are not even clearly significant. They look at coarse measures of activation in parts of the brain whose functions are still largely unclear and mysteriously deduce general cognitive principles, relying on the fact that few people know how to interpret a brain scan. In surprisingly many cases, they flat-out lie. I am shocked, though I suppose this just shows how naive I am: I have worked for a long time in Artificial Intelligence, a field that is notorious for overhyping its achievements. Somehow, I had thought these people were better than us, but that does not appear to be true.

Having read Fine's masterly demolition job, it is tempting to jump to the other extreme and conclude that there are no inherent differences between male and female minds, and that those differences we see are entirely due to social conditioning. I do not think, however, that that would be true to the deeper spirit of the book. Fine, who comes across as an admirable person, is upfront about the fact that no one is neutral in this debate, and she does not even pretend to be neutral herself; this is indeed one of the things which makes her writing so amusing. She shows how researchers, time after time, have made claims about gender differences which in hindsight have turned out to be utterly absurd. The rational response is to be as skeptical as possible about all such claims, and I will pay Fine the compliment of treating her own arguments with the same skepticism. I am indeed convinced by the way she refutes arguments that women are incapable of performing as well as men on a variety of tasks where they have traditionally been supposed inferior. (The section on the notorious spatial rotation task was particularly startling). But there are, all the same, a number of facts which I do not think are obviously explained inside the framework she describes here. With some misgivings, I will outline what they are.

To begin, there is the uncontroversial fact that autism and Asperger's Syndrome are far more common in men than in women. I know a fair amount about this from personal experience; my older son is autistic, and I have spent a large part of my life interacting with chessplayers, computer scientists, mathematicians, and other groups where Asperger's types turn out to be common. It is hard to believe that this is coincidential. The highly-focused, obsessive, narrow Asperger's mindset seems to be a natural fit to these occupations, or more exactly to certain ways of approaching these occupations. I would like to make it clear that I am in no way saying that women cannot be chessplayers, mathematicians or computer scientists: I know many women who are world-class in these fields. But there is a way of doing such things which is characteristically Asperger's/autistic, and hence characteristically male. The clearest and most extreme example I can come up with is inventing a new chess opening. There are several hundred accepted chess openings, and, to the best of my knowledge, none of them have been invented by women.

Why is this? Obviously, I don't know, but here are some thoughts. Inventing a chess opening is something that requires a great deal of talent and hard work, but there is something more to it than that, which is hard to pin down: the best description I have seen is in Lev Polugaevsky's wonderful book Grandmaster Preparation, which I have read many times. Basically, inventing an opening is not a useful activity in any normal sense of the word. Most strong chessplayers - most World Champions, even - have never invented an opening. It is not likely to make you more successful competitively, since most new openings are soon refuted and fall into disuse; the rational thing to do from this point of view is to use other people's openings. It is not necessarily very creative. The real reward is that it appeals to a kind of stubbornness. The person who invents the opening goes his own way, against the whole world, just to show that he can. Thinking in this way is a kind of madness that is much commoner in men. It is not so much that women can't do it; it is more that hardly any women can see why they would want to do it, which is entirely sensible. But, somehow, society as a whole seems to benefit from the existence of this small group of people who are willfully different, even if the majority of them have wasted their lives without achieving anything. Chess is a richer and more interesting game because there are all these different paths one can take.

So Fine hasn't convinced me that men and women really do think alike at the deepest level; I believe it will be a long time before we understand what's going on there. But she has convinced me that the facile arguments about brain scans proving that women are inherently wired to read emotions but not to understand calculus are utter crap. If you haven't already done so, check out this book.