Book Review: Inferior, by Angela Saini

For Christmas I was given Inferior, a book by Angela Saini which investigates the current scientific consensus on sex differences in humans. Overall I found it absolutely fascinating – full of intriguing examples from foreign cultures and difference species. It makes explicit some of the fallacies built up over centuries around female inferiority, and how those cultural ideas influenced ‘unbiased’ science. The prose itself was compelling – I finished the book in less than two days, primarily because I couldn’t put it down. Saini has a skill for finding the most illustrative and compelling examples, and then gives explanations in the words of the scientists who discovered them.

My only complaint is that there is an undeniable bias in the rhetoric. Studies which support the old patriarchal view are presented skeptically, with their potential failings explicit. Work for the other side, on the other hand, is generally presented as undeniable fact. Male scientists who step outside their own realm of expertise are castigated, while female scientists who do so are lauded – as long as their conclusions are pro-feminist. On the other hand, in some situations the science is murky and Saini acknowledges this. She always presents conflicting views, both from the researchers and their peers.

Incidentally, despite this book being non-fiction, there was a villain. Dr Trivers, whose research suggests that females are naturally chaste, or at least less interested in sex than males, appears to be a complete tool. In one story about photocopying an article, he mentions the feeling of his testicles pressed against the Xerox machine – why has he included this? Would he have said it to a male interviewer? (Would a male interviewer have included it in the book?) In addition to the sexual harassment, Dr Trivers has also failed to read a well-received research paper, written by a scientist who he admits is good and reliable, which contradicts his own research. That is odd enough – that a researcher would fail to read a response to his own work – but additionally, Saini explicitly asked him to read it. He admitted that he knew about it – even denigrated it – and still has not read it. Is this because this paper is written by a woman? Saini bravely does not rise to the bait here and accuse him of sexual bias, as I do.

Below are a collection of the highlighted tidbits I learned while reading this book:

  • Evidence of Sex Bias
      • In a study published in 2012, Corinne Moss-Racusin and a team of researchers at Yale University sent out applications for a job as a laboratory manager. Every resume was identical except for the name – one versions had a typically feminine name, and the other a typically male name. Scientists – regardless of their own gender – rated the ‘women’ as less competent and less hireable. They were less willing to mentor the women, and offered lower starting salaries. (Pg 5)
      • Married women with children in the US are a third less likely to get tenure-track jobs than married men with children. (Pg 6)
      • A 2016 paper looked at how men and women perceived competency in their peers. Students in a biology class were asked to guess the grades of their classmates. Male grades were overestimated – by men – by .57 points in the GPA scale. Women showed no such bias. (Pg 7)
      • This is not genetically baked in, because other cultures have different results. In Bolivia, 63% of scientific researchers are women. In Central Asia, over half the researchers are women. (Pg 8)
  • Sex hormones aren’t as binary as we might think: horse testes are the best known source of estrogen (Pg 34), and women with slightly higher than usual levels of testosterone neither look nor feel less feminine than those with normal levels (Pg 36). On the other hand, research from 1980 onward suggests that sex hormones do alter the brain as we develop, though the extent to which that effects us is unclear. (Pg 76)
  • In 2011 census in India showed that there were 7 million fewer girls than boys under the age of six This is thought to be due to voluntary abortions after learning that a fetus is female. That was such a problem that it was actually made illegal in 1994. (Pg 40)
  • Some hospitals in South Asia have 80% of child patients that are male, because the girls are simply not brought to the hospital when they are sick. (Pg 41)
  • Across every society, women live about 5 to 6 years longer than man – and this has been true for centuries. We don’t really know why, but it has been hypothesized that female hormones play a role in strengthening the immune system. Supporting this is the fact that women are more likely than men to have autoimmune diseases – in the US, over 75% of people with autoimmune diseases are women. (Pg 46-49)
  • Despite extensive research into the physiological differences between the sexes, until 1990 it was common for medical trials to be carried out exclusively on men. (Pg 58)
  • Subtle and prolonged differences in the ways we are treated can affect the brain. In the 1970s and 1980s, research suggested that the ration of boys with mathematical genius to girls with mathematical genius was 13 to 1. Since then, the ratio has plummeted to 4:1, or even 2:1. This suggests that the difference is not inherent, but learned. Furthermore, in some communities women out-perform men on this scale – Latina kindergartners, for example, outperform their Latino classmates. (Pg 117-118)
  • Many birds thought to be monogamous have recently been shown to have a penchant for cheating. Female bluebirds will leave their nests and fly considerable distances at night to mate with other males. Some scientists have rejected this finding, insisting that the females are being raped (though personally I can’t see how the male rapes the female into flying a “considerable distance”). (Pg 116)
  • At Florida State, researchers had participants walk up to people (strangers) on the quad and propose a date or casual sex. The women were significantly less likely to agree than the men, and usually had a strong negative response (“Who do you think you are?”). The men were more likely to say yes to casual sex than to a date, and would often apologize if they refused sex. This was taken to show that men are naturally more promiscuous than women. But in 2015, two researchers questioned those results. They concocted an elaborate ruse where testees come in to a lab to participate in a dating study. They were shown ten photographs of people who “were interested in going on a date or having sex with them in particular.” If they agreed, they were told, they would go out in a safe location and the date would be filmed. In this situation – where the moral and physical risks were greatly decreased – 97% of women agreed to a date with at least one person, and almost every woman agreed to have sex. (The men all agreed to a date and sex with at least one woman). (Pg 174)
  • Researcher Alan Bateman wrote an influential paper about fruit fly mating which indicated that females were passive, choosy receivers of attention, while males were promiscuous. Several years later, Patricia Gowaty began to suspect some of these findings. She looked more deeply into Bateman’s paper, and found multiple potential spots of error. She also tried to replicate his result, and found instead that females were just as likely to approach males as vice versa. She wrote a paper about this, which has yet to be read by some of the most influential researchers in the field (including Dr Trivers), even though they are aware of the paper and otherwise consider her a solid researcher. (Pg 174-178)
  • Pigeons clump together for warmth in the winter. They are in mated pairs, and when they huddle together the male pigeons always sit in the middle of the set, so that they are between their mate and any other male. If there are three pairs, this becomes impossible – the middle male can’t keep his mate from both the other males at once. So he engages in ‘mate-guarding’ behavior, and pecks her until she backs up a few steps out of the huddle. The male pigeon would rather have his mate cold, tired, more likely to get ill than next to a male. If, in the night, she sneaks back into the huddle, he’ll peck her again until she is out. Question: Why go to such extreme lengths (we see such behaviors in humans as well) if the females do indeed have minimal sexual appetite? (Pg 180)
  • Our two closest relatives, chimps and bonobos, exhibit markedly different behaviors. Male chimps are violent towards their partners, and will even kill a potential partner’s child to make her more likely to have sex with them. Bonobos, on the other hand, are run by the females. Though they are smaller than the males, they work together as a team to control the males. (Incidentally, the idea that female bonobos were in charge was rejected for many years by male researchers who couldn’t believe it). Females spend 2/3 of their time building relationships with other female bonobos. (Pg 200-205) What this means for humans is that it was not written in stone that males should be the dominant sex – not even with them being larger!


Edinburgh Half-Marathon

One of the best things about my dearly beloved is that he pushes me out of my comfort zone.  Well, he’s done it again: I have officially signed up for the Edinburgh Half Marathon on May 27, 2017.


This is officially way outside my comfort zone.  Even when I was at my peak fitness point, I considered myself “the anti-runner.” I even justified it with physiology – small feet + short shins + long femurs = minimal torque = bad running.  I have essentially no justification for this, but I’ve used it to rationalize my distaste for running for years.  For whatever reason, I never experienced that “runner’s high” that everyone talks about.  I knew the feeling from biking, but I never found it with running.

But now I’m going to try to find it.  I don’t think I will ever be totally comfortable running with Jeremy.  He’s fast, and my competitive drive would get in the way.  BUT I think we could both be runners, and I’d like to be more able to keep up with him.

My goal for the next 10 weeks: no complaining about running.  Maybe in my head I’ll think, “Oh, I really don’t want to do this.” But I won’t give in to moaning, and I won’t say it out loud. No sighs, no facial expressions…I’ll act like I enjoy running, and hopefully I’ll trick myself into believing it!

Women in Math: The Symposium

On Saturday, Tori and I hosted a symposium to celebrate Women in Math – sponsored by the UChicago AWM.  We had undergrads, grad students, a post-doc, and tenured faculty talking about their own research (in the case of women), and the work of female mathematicians (in the case of the men). Unfortunately, we started a little too early in the morning – attendance was very low for these talks, which were universally excellent.

In the afternoon we had a larger attendance.  Most of the talks were more about women in math than about math itself.  Kiki Zissimopoulus ran an excellent session on how to teach to an inclusive classroom. We explored what an inclusive classroom is, what constitutes ‘mathematical thinking,’ and ways that we can foster an inclusive environment in our own classes.  I was excited to apply some of these ideas to my own teaching – especially the idea of strategic learners and deep learners, and trying to encourage deep learning techniques (returning to old homework problems, repairing errors, etc).

We also had a fascinating session by Stephen Meyer, of UChicago Astrophysics, about Implicit Bias.  He gave an interesting presentation, which centered on a study of letters of recommendation for male and female medical candidates.  The statistical differences are striking, and hard to ignore: twice as many letters for women as for men included ‘doubt raisers’ – comments like, “She worked hard on projects she accepted,” which are interpreted negatively, while offering surface support. Only 3% of the letters for women referred to them by their titles, while 12% of letters for men did so – and there was no difference in the number of women who had such titles compared to the number of men. Letters for women are much more likely to address training, personal life, and teaching than letters for men.  On the other hand, male letters tend to address research much more than female letters. Perhaps the most interesting method of analysis was looking at the most common words following possessives: “her research,” “his colleagues,” etc.  Overwhelmingly these words followed social stereotypes.  All of this is true regardless of the gender of the recommender – one of the most insidious aspects of implicit bias.  And, as Professor Meyer pointed out, this effect is multiplied by the biases of the readers. On a related note, this is a cool resource (shown to me by Kiki Zissimopoulus) about gender biases revealed by word usage in teacher reviews.

We also had a great session on Impostor Syndrome, run by Claudio.  He ran it as a workshop, and at one point asked us to turn to our neighbors, look them in the eye, and tell them something that we are proud of.  I found this incredibly difficult – even though he had told us to do it, even though I knew they would not think of it as bragging, even though I knew they wouldn’t laugh or make a face. Even so, I was near tears by the time I said anything. What was interesting (and surprising) to me was that everyone in our little group had a quote-unquote “rational” for thinking they did not really belong in the UChicago PhD program. I was able to look at my fellow grad students and see that they were being absurd – they are excellent mathematicians and well suited to UChicago – but I can’t do the same for myself. Very frustrating, to know that one is being irrational and yet be unable to escape from those thoughts.

We closed the night with mathematical trivia, put together by Mathilde. The questions were perfectly chosen (though I may be a little biased since my team won).  Questions ranged from mathematical trivia (How many 4-dimensional platonic solids are there?), to historical personages (I am a French mathematician whose hand was buried apart from my body.  Who am I?), to estimation questions (How many kangaroos are there in Australia?). We had a great time, and it was fun to get competitive over something small.  My team won a bag of tropical fruit as a prize – a UChicago math department tradition started by accident in my first year.

All in all, I think we did a good job of the symposium, given that it was planned in less than two months.  We even (after adjusting slightly) had the right amount of food! (Plus some non-perishables that we’ll use in our next event.) Goodness – I was exhausted afterwards, primarily over the stress of making sure everything ran smoothly.  We luckily had a lot of volunteers to help run each classroom, deal with setting up projectors, and even clean up the food after meals. I have no idea how anyone can run a several-day conference! But it was a great experience, and next year we’ll do more early planning, get more speakers, and all in all have a great time.

Intelligence Squared: Has the political establishment failed America?

I went to a debate on February 23, hosted by the UChicago Institute for Politics and Inteligence Squared.  IQ2 hosts “Oxford-style debates”; there are two teams of two people.  Each speaker makes a 15 minute opening statement, followed by a round of questions from the audience, and then 5 minute closing statements from each speaker.

The topic on hand was “Has the political establishment failed America?” It’s a wishy-washy topic, and hard to get a handle on – who counts as “political establishment,” what does “failed” mean, and even what does “America” mean (citizens, or the idea of America). I find it hard to grapple with questions like this. On one hand, there is a sense in which any question precisely worded would have a straight-forward answer, or at least it would have a series of studies that argue for opposing views.  In this case, a debate would be either pointless or dull.  But if you go too far in blurriness of a question, then each side can choose an interpretation that best suits their case, and thus talk past each other.  There was a lot of “Just because the political establishment has not always failed America, or just because the political establishment doesn’t fail America in every way, does not mean that the political establishment has not failed America” on one side, and on the other, claims that “‘Political establishment’ is such a meaningless phrase, and is up for so much interpretation, that the only response to this is to vote no.” And so the debate, which should be a coming together of opinions and ideas to create a consensus, devolves into a battle of who can persuade the most people that their definition is the best. Both sides talk past each other.

The Pro team: Michael Eric Dyson (Georgetown University) and William Howell (UChicago).

Michael Eric Dyson, of the Georgetown Sociology department, was a fiery speaker and incredible orator.  His words were rhythmic and alliterative, emotionally powerful and compelling.  When I took a moment to step back and think about what he was saying, I realized that he wasn’t really addressing the question at hand – he was talking about Trump and the Republican party in general.  Though they are the current political establishment, you can’t address their failings and not address the system that brought them to power. Just because he was such a good speaker, here is a video of him talking about racism and Trump.

The other member of the Pro team, William Howell, is a member of the UChicago Harris School in Public Policy. He was my favorite of the debaters, because he stayed on the question the entire time.  He also didn’t attempt to evade the question by arguing that we shouldn’t be answering it all – he accepted the premise of the debate and tried to live within those confines.  Unfortunately, he did seem a bit arrogant.  He was also pushing for broad institutional reform – he even implied changing our entire form of government – which was a bit more extreme than I am ready to support.

The Con team: Jennifer Rubin (The Washington Post) and Eric Oliver (UChicago).

Eric Oliver gave the opening statement for the Con team.  Admittedly, following Mr Dyson is a big task.  However, his attempt to equate anyone who supports the motion with Donald Trump and his supporters was logically flawed in the extreme.  Indeed, while the Pro teams most pervasive problem was trying to turn the debate into a referendum on Trump and his policies, the Con team’s was over-inflating the facts and an inability to wrestle with inconsistencies.  Yes, Donald Trump ran on subverting the establishment.  That does not mean that President Donald Trump is not now a part of that establishment.

The other half of the team, Jennifer Rubin, is a conservative columnist for the Washington Post. I found her to be a poor speaker and prone to logical fallacies, but I worry that I only think that because she is (1) female, and (2) conservative.  I so fundamentally disagreed with much of what she said that I’m not sure I can be an objective judge of her abilities.

Intelligence Squared debates are won by convincing more people to join your side.  They poll the audience at the beginning and end of the debate, and compare the scores. I began as an “Undecided” voter, and ended supported the Pro team.  But much of that support came not so much from agreeing with their arguments, but disagreeing with the Con side’s approach.  Both teams made valid points throughout; the political system is failing America in terms of discrimination of all sorts, environmental planning, and protections from big companies.  But on the other hand, American quality of life goes up and down periodically, and it would be wrong to place that at the foot of the political establishment.  Especially since it is the establishment that has stepped in to stop so many of the most egregious outrages – the courts stopping Trump’s travel ban, the federal government (evnetually) stepping in for Flint, MI.

So, who won?

The final result was that 4% of respondents switched from Pro to Undecided, and the rest stayed the same.  So Con technically won, I suppose?

I got to ask a question at the end of the debate. I asked to what extent each team’s argument was historical – did the Pro team think there was ever a time when the political establishment was not failing America? Did the Con side think the political establishment had ever failed America? And if yes, when did it change?  Unfortunately, neither side really answered my question; in fact, both sides seemed to argue the opposition’s point! Afterwards, at a reception hosted by the IoP, one of the speakers noticed me and told me that I had asked an excellent question.  Very flattering – but next time, please answer it!

Skiing in Door County

I went home for two days to get some cross-country skiing in.  I love skiing – it’s peaceful, steady, exhausting, fast…everything good. The steady action is almost meditative.  I’ve been skiing since I was tiny – my parents have photos of me in a little pink and purple snowsuit, toddling along on my miniature skis.  But before I could even walk, my parents were pulling me in a pulk – sled you attach to your waist and pull behind you.  They were traditionally used to transport supplies and people during ski journeys in the Nordic countries.  I have vague memories of getting strapped into the pulk, feeling the plastic of the sled flex under my back as we moved, hearing the roar of the sliding snow, and watching snowflakes fall from the sky and onto my face.

I never pulled a pulk until this winter, when my friend Liz purchased one for her baby Grant.  Liz is learning how to skate ski, so while she gets her feet under her I get to pull the baby.  It’s a different motion than skiing without the pulk – you have to be more smooth, move your hips differently so that you aren’t constantly jerking the sled. Grant is funny – he likes to sing along with the sliding sound for a bit, and then he falls asleep. The pulk doesn’t cause much of a problem on the flats or downhills, but going up a steep hill can be a battle! Sometimes I have to let Dad pull for me, when I am too tired.

Dad, Liz, and the Baby G at Snowkraft.

I love to ski at Snowkraft Nordic in Sturgeon Bay. A local man runs it.  He spends hours and hours making sure that the trail surface is perfectly smooth, the grass just the right softness, the trees trimmed to perfection so that you can ski there when nowhere else has snow.  He goes and grooms at 2am, when the snow is coldest, to keep the trails as perfect as possible. The result is some of the best ski trails in the state.  And because of the careful maintenance, they can be skiied on when nowhere else has snow.  He also uses up every inch of his land to make fun, twisty trails that make good use of the natural terrain. The Orchard trails are built along a ridge, so as you travel east to west you climb a surprisingly steep grade! Then you turn around and whoosh back down the hill, speeding around S-bends and banked turns. The trails in the pines are flatter, but also beautiful, fast, and impeccably groomed.  I can’t wait to get back!

Snowkraft ski trails.  The Orchard is hilly!