July 1, 2016

My response to two tweets by Steven Pinker (on race and sex differences)

Steven Pinker
This week Harvard University professor Steven Pinker posted two tweets which I'd like to respond to. The first tweet is about racism, the second about whether sex differences exist.

1. The racism tweet

I am critical of this tweet but I agree with part of it so let me start by mentioning what I agree with. First, I agree with the intent of opposing racism. The thought that groups of people of certain backgrounds and appearances are inherently inferior is, in my view, unjustified and terrible. I also agree with the implied argument by Pinker to rely on valid arguments when opposing racism. If races are a reality, as he implies, it is indeed a bad idea to say they don't just to fight racism. Arguments which aren't grounded in reality can never be convincing.

Now to the part I do not agree with. As I understand, the term race is not used in any formal biological nomenclature (see here). I do understand that genetic clusters within humanity are a reality and that these have practical implications. A first remark is that statistical clustering can lead to different clusters depending on how clustering methods are used and on what attributes one clusters. A second remark is that even one study which found genetic clusters which roughly correspond to major geographical regions (Rosenberg et al. (2005) cannot be seen as a justification for the existence of human races.

As Rosenberg himself said: "The study's overall results confirmed that genetic difference within populations is between 93 and 95%. Only 5% of genetic variation is found between groups" and that the "findings “should not be taken as evidence of our support of any particular concept of biological race" (...).

The term 'race' as it is known by non-scientists is vague concept which, I think, does far more harm than good. For example, people use the term race to refer to as diverse things as physiological features, geographical factor, religious factors, nationality, cultural habits, etc.

By implying that races are an empirical reality (which I don't buy), I am afraid Pinker reinforces vague common sense notions of race such as: there is a white race and a black race, there is such a thing as the Jewish race, Mexicans are a race, Muslims are a race. By accepting such vague terms you allow the term to be used for terrible purposes.

Pinker accuses his opponents of trying to advance their purpose (let's say egalitarianism) by relying on an argument which is not grounded in reality (the idea that races do not exist). Ironically, he may be the one who hangs on to a concept which is dubious. By the way, the onus is not on the skeptic to prove that races do not exist. The onus is on the scholars claiming races do exist to clearly define the concept and to provide empirical evidence of their existence. Even if they would do that, they'd better avoid the term race in order to prevent that people would see this scientific evidence as support of their mistaken intuitive and bigoted notions of race.

2. The tweet on sex differences


Contrary to the notion of race, which, I think is not an accepted term in biology, the term sex is an accepted term in biology. Throughout the animal kingdom sexual dimorphism can be found which means that "the two sexes of the same species exhibit different characteristics beyond the differences in their sexual organs" (source). I agree with Pinker that sexual dimorphism exists in humans as it does in all our evolutionary cousins. I also agree that denying this biological phenomenon can work counter-productively if you want to improve gender egalitarianism.

Having said this, I'd like to point out two things. First, the fact that biological tendencies exist does not mean we should always accept them. Human civilization, in part, is a matter of creating institutions and behavioral habits which counter biological tendencies. As I mentioned here, inborn biological tendencies are shaped into us by evolution to serve our genes. Our individual and collective interests overlap only partly with these interests. It takes careful reflection to determine when to resist biological tendencies and when to go along with them.

Second, we must be careful about how we frame the issue of sex differences. The frame implied in the tweet is that the question is either whether sexes are identical or not. As I said, I agree that sexes are not identical. However, this frame masks a large part of reality which a different type of frame may reveal. Instead of asking "are sexes identical or not?", we may ask "in what respects are sexes equal and in what aspects are they identical?". Answering this question reveals that men and women are different in certain specific ways but equal in many other ways, I think in most ways.

Primitive societies have both viewed and treated men and women much more unequally than advanced societies. I would not be surprised that still more advanced societies will view and treat men and women even more equally and appreciate our commonalities even more.

My response to two tweets by Steven Pinker (on race and sex differences)

Steven Pinker
This week Harvard University professor Steven Pinker posted two tweets which I'd like to respond to. The first tweet is about racism, the second about whether sex differences exist.

1. The racism tweet

I am critical of this tweet but I agree with part of it so let me start by mentioning what I agree with. First, I agree with the intent of opposing racism. The thought that groups of people of certain backgrounds and appearances are inherently inferior is, in my view, unjustified and terrible. I also agree with the implied argument by Pinker to rely on valid arguments when opposing racism. If races are a reality, as he implies, it is indeed a bad idea to say they don't just to fight racism. Arguments which aren't grounded in reality can never be convincing.

Now to the part I do not agree with. As I understand, the term race is not used in any formal biological nomenclature (see here). I do understand that genetic clusters within humanity are a reality and that these have practical implications. A first remark is that statistical clustering can lead to different clusters depending on how clustering methods are used and on what attributes one clusters. A second remark is that even one study which found genetic clusters which roughly correspond to major geographical regions (Rosenberg et al. (2005) cannot be seen as a justification for the existence of human races.

As Rosenberg himself said: "The study's overall results confirmed that genetic difference within populations is between 93 and 95%. Only 5% of genetic variation is found between groups" and that the "findings “should not be taken as evidence of our support of any particular concept of biological race" (...).

The term 'race' as it is known by non-scientists is vague concept which, I think, does far more harm than good. For example, people use the term race to refer to as diverse things as physiological features, geographical factor, religious factors, nationality, cultural habits, etc.

By implying that races are an empirical reality (which I don't buy), I am afraid Pinker reinforces vague common sense notions of race such as: there is a white race and a black race, there is such a thing as the Jewish race, Mexicans are a race, Muslims are a race. By accepting such vague terms you allow the term to be used for terrible purposes.

Pinker accuses his opponents of trying to advance their purpose (let's say egalitarianism) by relying on an argument which is not grounded in reality (the idea that races do not exist). Ironically, he may be the one who hangs on to a concept which is dubious. By the way, the onus is not on the skeptic to prove that races do not exist. The onus is on the scholars claiming races do exist to clearly define the concept and to provide empirical evidence of their existence. Even if they would do that, they'd better avoid the term race in order to prevent that people would see this scientific evidence as support of their mistaken intuitive and bigoted notions of race.

2. The tweet on sex differences

Contrary to the notion of race, which, I think is not an accepted term in biology, the term sex is an accepted term in biology. Throughout the animal kingdom sexual dimorphism can be found which means that "the two sexes of the same species exhibit different characteristics beyond the differences in their sexual organs" (source). I agree with Pinker that sexual dimorphism exists in humans as it does in all our evolutionary cousins. I also agree that denying this biological phenomenon can work counter-productively if you want to improve gender egalitarianism.

Having said this, I'd like to point out two things. First, the fact that biological tendencies exist does not mean we should always accept them. Human civilization, in part, is a matter of creating institutions and behavioral habits which counter biological tendencies. As I mentioned here, inborn biological tendencies are shaped into us by evolution to serve our genes. Our individual and collective interests overlap only partly with these interests. It takes careful reflection to determine when to resist biological tendencies and when to go along with them.

Second, we must be careful about how we frame the issue of sex differences. The frame implied in the tweet is that the question is either whether sexes are identical or not. As I said, I agree that sexes are not identical. However, this frame masks a large part of reality which a different type of frame may reveal. Instead of asking "are sexes identical or not?", we may ask "in what respects are sexes equal and in what aspects are they identical?". Answering this question reveals that men and women are different in certain specific ways but equal in many other ways, I think in most ways.

Primitive societies have both viewed and treated men and women much more unequally than advanced societies. I would not be surprised that still more advanced societies will view and treat men and women even more equally and appreciate our commonalities even more.

My response to two tweets by Steven Pinker (on race and sex differences)

Steven Pinker
This week Harvard University professor Steven Pinker posted two tweets which I'd like to respond to. The first tweet is about racism, the second about whether sex differences exist.

1. The racism tweet

I am critical of this tweet but I agree with part of it so let me start by mentioning what I agree with. First, I agree with the intent of opposing racism. The thought that groups of people of certain backgrounds and appearances are inherently inferior is, in my view, unjustified and terrible. I also agree with the implied argument by Pinker to rely on valid arguments when opposing racism. If races are a reality, as he implies, it is indeed a bad idea to say they don't just to fight racism. Arguments which aren't grounded in reality can never be convincing.

Now to the part I do not agree with. As I understand, the term race is not used in any formal biological nomenclature (see here). I do understand that genetic clusters within humanity are a reality and that these have practical implications. A first remark is that statistical clustering can lead to different clusters depending on how clustering methods are used and on what attributes one clusters. A second remark is that even one study which found genetic clusters which roughly correspond to major geographical regions (Rosenberg et al. (2005) cannot be seen as a justification for the existence of human races.

As Rosenberg himself said: "The study's overall results confirmed that genetic difference within populations is between 93 and 95%. Only 5% of genetic variation is found between groups" and that the "findings “should not be taken as evidence of our support of any particular concept of biological race" (...).

The term 'race' as it is known by non-scientists is vague concept which, I think, does far more harm than good. For example, people use the term race to refer to as diverse things as physiological features, geographical factor, religious factors, nationality, cultural habits, etc.

By implying that races are an empirical reality (which I don't buy), I am afraid Pinker reinforces vague common sense notions of race such as: there is a white race and a black race, there is such a thing as the Jewish race, Mexicans are a race, Muslims are a race. By accepting such vague terms you allow the term to be used for terrible purposes.

Pinker accuses his opponents of trying to advance their purpose (let's say egalitarianism) by relying on an argument which is not grounded in reality (the idea that races do not exist). Ironically, he may be the one who hangs on to a concept which is dubious. By the way, the onus is not on the skeptic to prove that races do not exist. The onus is on the scholars claiming races do exist to clearly define the concept and to provide empirical evidence of their existence. Even if they would do that, they'd better avoid the term race in order to prevent that people would see this scientific evidence as support of their mistaken intuitive and bigoted notions of race.

2. The tweet on sex differences

Contrary to the notion of race, which, I think is not an accepted term in biology, the term sex is an accepted term in biology. Throughout the animal kingdom sexual dimorphism can be found which means that "the two sexes of the same species exhibit different characteristics beyond the differences in their sexual organs" (source). I agree with Pinker that sexual dimorphism exists in humans as it does in all our evolutionary cousins. I also agree that denying this biological phenomenon can work counter-productively if you want to improve gender egalitarianism.

Having said this, I'd like to point out two things. First, the fact that biological tendencies exist does not mean we should always accept them. Human civilization, in part, is a matter of creating institutions and behavioral habits which counter biological tendencies. As I mentioned here, inborn biological tendencies are shaped into us by evolution to serve our genes. Our individual and collective interests overlap only partly with these interests. It takes careful reflection to determine when to resist biological tendencies and when to go along with them.

Second, we must be careful about how we frame the issue of sex differences. The frame implied in the tweet is that the question is either whether sexes are identical or not. As I said, I agree that sexes are not identical. However, this frame masks a large part of reality which a different type of frame may reveal. Instead of asking "are sexes identical or not?", we may ask "in what respects are sexes equal and in what aspects are they identical?". Answering this question reveals that men and women are different in certain specific ways but equal in many other ways, I think in most ways.

Primitive societies have both viewed and treated men and women much more unequally than advanced societies. I would not be surprised that still more advanced societies will view and treat men and women even more equally and appreciate our commonalities even more.

My response to two tweets by Steven Pinker (on race and sex differences)

Steven Pinker
This week Harvard University professor Steven Pinker posted two tweets which I'd like to respond to. The first tweet is about racism, the second about whether sex differences exist.

1. The racism tweet

June 26, 2016

Self-directed personality development

Personality traits are viewed as behavioral tendencies which are relatively stable over time and over a variety of situations. Both among lay people and psychologists there are many who think that changing one's personality substantially is hard or even impossible. This belief is primarily based on the observation that the personality of most people does not appear to change a lot during adult life. But a paper by Hennecke et al. (2014) suggests that self-directed personality change is possible. In the paper they explain why personality usually does not change much, why it actually can be done, and how it can be done.

Growth mindset intervention improves stress response of adolescents

Adolescents are often exposed to negative social judgments. This can create stress when they feel they cannot meet the expectations of a social situation. Yeager et al. (2016) studied whether adolescents would be able to better deal with these challenges when they were taught that people have the potential to learn the required social characteristics. In other words, when they were taught a growth mindset with respect to personality.

June 25, 2016

Wisdom is associated with well-being

Are people with stronger cognitive abilities happier? Previous research into this question led to inconclusive results. Researchers Grossman et al. (2013) suspected that this was because this research primarily looked into the relation between intelligence and well-being and not to other qualities such as wisdom. That is why they did a study with 241 people in which they investigated the relationships between 5 variables: 1) intelligence, 2) wisdom, 3) personality, 4 age, and 5) well-being. Wisdom was measured through a structured interview method; the other variables were measured using validated tests and scales.

June 24, 2016

Everyday wisdom is not a stable personality trait

Igor Grossman and Ethan Kross (2014) showed that people, by looking at their own problems from a distance (from a third person perspective), can come to wiser judgments (read more about their studies). A new study by Grossman et al. (2016) focuses on the question how stable or dynamic wisdom is in daily life. The researchers did a daily diary study into wise reasoning which lasted 9 months with 152 participants and which asked people to reflect on problems which that had had the previous day. They measured 3 facets of wisdom: intellectual humility, self-transcendence (being able to view your situation from a distance), and consideration of others’ perspectives/compromise.

June 15, 2016

Mindset-intervention before college narrows achievement gaps

A new study by Yeager et al. (2016) tested the effects of preparatory lay theory interventions to reduce racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic achievement gaps when students enter college. Lay theory interventions are interventions aimed at helping students understand that challenges in the transition to college are common and improvable and, thus, that early struggles need not portend a permanent lack of belonging or potential. Often, these interventions are done when students are already at college. Preparatory lay theory interventions are done before students have entered college. As the study suggests they work. The picture on the right shows why. These interventions help people explain struggles and problems in a different and more constructive manner which helps them to respond more effectively to them and to be more successful.

June 14, 2016

Hate gays? Maybe You’re Gay

Have you noticed the paradox that sometimes people who are vocal opponents of gay rights at some point turn out to be gay themselves? Did you hear that the person responsible for the mass shooting at a gay club earlier this week had been a regular visitor of that club and chatted with men via online dating services like Grindr? How to make sense of this paradox?

Simple pleasures buffer negative consequences of small annoyances for daily goal progress

Simple pleasures buffer negative consequences of small annoyances for daily goal progress
In a six-day experience-sampling study Mead et al (2016) tested how simple pleasures and small annoyances that characterize everyday life affect goal progress. Results supported their prediction that simple pleasures would buffer the detrimental consequences of small annoyances for daily goal progress.

June 11, 2016

Meaning and motivation in work: what is the role of managers?

In this video, Ed Deci, co-developer of the self-determination theory, explains that we, as parents, teachers, coaches and managers should not try to motivate people but instead can try to create the conditions within which people can motivate themselves. People are not like, so to speak, empty vessels in which we have to pour motivation.  People are naturally motivated to explore and try to understand their environment and to try to make useful contributions. If you still treat people like motivation-less creatures into which motivation has to be pumped you will inevitably create resistance because you disregard their already existing motivation and their ability to further motivate themselves.

June 9, 2016

Review of Angela Duckworth's book GRIT

A year ago I wrote a post about Angela Duckworth's work on grit. I said I found it interesting but that it also raised questions. As examples, I mentioned these questions:
An important question I have about the grit concept is what long term passions or goals precisely look like. If you look at the tool with which Duckworth and her colleagues measure grit (see here), this does not become quite clear. At which level do these long term goals have to be specified? Does it matter whether they are defined in terms of achievements or in terms of learning? How narrow or specific do these goals or passions have to be?  To which degree are they static or dynamic? I imagine that, as a young person, you cannot oversee how your life will evolve and that your experiences affect how you will think about what your passion or long term goals are and how they will change or evolve. Is is perhaps so that thinking about your long term goals or passions is a continuous process in which you keep refining and redefining what they are?

June 5, 2016

John McLaughlin: "To improve I have to work harder"

John McLaughlin is one of my favorite guitarists. Here is a clip of him being interviewed in 1991. The interviewer asks him about how much he practices referring to another guitarist who claims he does not practice. I think John's answer is great. Here is a little excerpt:

John McLaughlin: “I have this theory. Maybe just because it’s me. If I don't practice it goes down. And just to stay equal, even, I have to work. To improve I have to work harder.”

Interviewer: “I wonder if there is something you have great difficulty with. Everyone in their job has a bit where the little red signals go ‘this is a bit I find difficult’. Do you have bits that ….?”

June 4, 2016

4 Ways to use the circle technique

The circle technique is a very simple and effective progress-focused technique which can be applied in many situations. It is most frequently used in individual coaching and team facilitation sessions. The basic approach is as follows. First, you choose a theme or goal for which you want to use the circle technique. Second, in the inner circle you write down, on post it notes, what is already there. Third, in the outer circle you write down what is not yet there (also on post it notes). Fourth, you choose which note in the outer circle will be the first one you want to move to the inner circle and you think about how you will try to accomplish that.

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner