Search the literature!

Every once in a while, I neglect to remember my favourite quote:

Six months of research can save you an afternoon in the library.

This is from a plaque in the library at work. The original quote is by American chemist Frank Westheimer. The longer I have been doing research, the more I am seeing just how true this statement is.

How to use this insight in day-to-day life:

  1. Realise that an afternoon is both really short compared to six months, and really long compared to how long you typically browse the web looking for an answer.
  2. Be aware that, in an everyday question, you don’t know the right words to query the search engine. After your first couple tries in web search and scholarly search (the results of Google and of Google Scholar seem almost disjoint so do try both), try to acquire the right keywords through figuring out what field your question is in, or to generalize your question.
  3. Google Scholar has interesting results even on page 10. Results are not ordered in relevance as well as web search does.

Rules for writing this blog

Dear future me,

In this post, I will state some ground rules that you have to follow for blogging. Your sense of self-commitment should be enough to stick to those rules, but in case it is not, I will try to give reasons that should convince you.

Purpose

The primary purpose of this blog is to get better at writing. You have to write things that are challenging to write. Here are some different suggestions:

  1. Commentary: write an opinion piece, review a book or movie, criticise a policy or organisation. The challenge in these is to achieve multiple ends simultaneously: get your opinion across, be fair and intellectually honest, and be nice.
  2. Things you don’t understand: try to see how smart you can sound while talking about things you have little clue about. Be willing to put your understanding of a topic in words, even if you feel like you don’t understand it very well.
  3. Different writing formats: look around for fun writing formats and try to emulate them. In particular, you should try Buzzfeed, Vice, Math with Bad Drawings and Slate Star Codex.
  4. Bridge a gap in knowledge and caring: communicating is hard when people don’t know of each other how much they know of a topic, and when you know a lot about something, it is easy to overestimate how anyone else knows. Find topics where you can practice this.

I know you like writing about your favourite science experiments and you want to share your favourite tofu recipe, but you should wait a bit for that, gain some more writing experience. Critically review your earlier writing on that [not on this blog], then you can write it anew. No sharing of content for the sake of sharing content, only write the stuff you feel you would learn a lot from. This blog is for you to write, not for visitors to read.

A secondary purpose of this blog is to get more insight into the things you read. How much does someone need to know to seem knowledgeable? Are articles typically too long or too short to really make their point? Does having to produce a lot of content negatively impact how interesting it is?

The Rules

    • Every post should satisfy at least one of the following:
      • have a topic different from all previous things you have read in your life
      • be about your personal feelings,
      • have content that people can disagree with. Be provocative. Does your desired topic not satisfy this rule? Push it further and further until it does. This criterium should overrule your desire for global consistency, though local consistency within a single post should still be aimed for.
  • At least one blog post should go up every weekend. Try to write it in that same weekend, though allowance is made for when you are abroad for work.
  • Every once in a while, take a critical look at some earlier posts and see where you can improve. There are probably online communities of people who do this for each other. Consider joining one of those.

Just in case you do get readers at some point, it might be good to preface some posts with a short note about the intended audience? Think about this for a bit.

Silent edits are allowed up to 7 days after posting, as is adding links to the new article in old articles. After these 7 days, edits are only allowed to be of the following form. Inconsiderate viewpoint. [edit: past me held problematic opinions, sorry for that.]

Closing

You should stick to these rules for at least one year. After that, I invite you to evaluate the results, change some of the rules where necessary, and keep to them for another year. Good luck.

Forever yours,

Past me

Is TERF ideology taking over EA?

TERF stands for Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism. TERFS are a hate group that views trans rights as a threat to women’s rights.

“Trans women are pervert men that prey on women in women’s bathrooms and trans men are confused lesbians. Medical transition is a patriarchal notion to keep gender roles intact and is antithetical to any body-positivity movement. Bleh bleh bleh.” – TERFs

So, suppose you are a transphobe and want an air of scientific legitimacy for your views. Enter the two-type taxonomy of Blanchard. It proposes trans women come in two separate varieties: effeminate homosexual men who think they would have an easier time by pretending to be a woman and straight men with the paraphilia of being sexually attracted to the idea of themselves having female bodies. The latter are called autogynephilic transsexuals.

Where does this divide come from? Julia Serano summarizes that, after noting that not all trans woman seemed to fit the picture that gatekeeping therapist had of trans women (outwardly feminine from early childhood, transition early in life, attracted to men),

Blanchard subdivided MtF transsexuals by sexual orientation into four groups—androphilic, gynephilic, bisexual, and asexual. He found that a majority of the gynephilic (87.5%, n = 16), asexual (75%, n = 12) and bisexual (65.7%, n = 35) groups reported having experienced cross-gender arousal in response to wearing women’s clothing on at least one occasion in their lives, while only 15% (n = 100) of the androphilic group responded similarly (Blanchard, 1985). He also found that the gynephilic, bisexual, and asexual groups, on average, reported less recalled childhood feminine gender expression and presented for sex reassignment later in life than the androphilic group (Blanchard, 1988). Based on these results, Blanchard argued that there are two fundamentally different types of MtF transsexuals—androphilic and nonandrophilic (where nonandrophilic includes the gynephilic, bisexual, and asexual groups).

Furthermore, statistically, it seems that trans women from the second group are more likely to have STEM jobs, pass less well and share some other traits. So I mean, sure, there might really be an axis of correlated traits, though the theory does not manage to pass some basic sanity checks.

  • Can we trust numbers consisting of self-reports to gatekeepers?
  • Axis of correlated traits, sure, but are these really two clusters?
  • How is this narrative possibly the best explanation of the observations?
  • Why do >99% of trans women say this does not describe their experience, instead describing the feeling of gender dysphoria?
  • How does this theory relate to the observations surrounding phantom limbs in transgender people?
  • Why are both groups of trans women at such risk for suicide, in contrast to other paraphilic populations?
  • What about trans men? Non-binary peoples?
  • Are cis women autogynephiles?
  • Sex and sexuality are disgusting and nobody would let those guide their actions. [Never mind, we will fix that later.]

For more about the theory and why it is unscientific bullshit, see Contrapoints for hilarious jokes, woke feminist theory and personal experience or Julia Serano for a more scientific treatment. Mind that the prevailing gender identity theory has its own problems, but probably the least of any theory that treats gender in essentialist terms.

But this post is not about the theory, but about the fact that people in my favourite community are taking it seriously. Among those are major EA feminist blog Thing of Things, aspiring Less Wrong Gender Czar and self-identified autogynephilic The Scintillating But Ultimately Untrue Thought and even the otherwise amazing Putanumonit. Putanumonit seems to forget his usual sceptic view of things presented as evidence, Scintillating claims without further exposition that Blanchard’s theory has more explanatory power and that introspection never gives scientifically valid information, and Thing of Things expresses disagreement with Blanchard’s theory but does treat it as a valid theory and gives it a podium.

Belief in Blanchard’s theory is leaking into the EA community, against the mainstream scientific view. I find this scary and I don’t know what to do about it. But at the very least, I think we should make it clear that Blanchard’s model is an unnecessarily stigmatizing fringe theory on shaky evidential ground. It is more like hate group ideology than good science.