Paper is rejected twice: Because it was hot garbage.

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Over the weekend, Matt Young brought to our attention to story about a paper by T. P. Hill that was rejected by two mathematics journals. — I also highly recommend Lior Pachter’s article on this paper. — The implication in the controversy surrounding the rejections of the paper is that the paper is being blackballed because left-wing academics don’t like the possible implications of the paper: that mathematics is male dominated due to biology and evolution. And given the cottage industry of people convinced that academia is censoring research into human cognitive variation and sexual difference, there is a huge echo chamber promoting the idea that a very reasonable paper™ is being squashed by jack-booted thugs.

I’ve read the paper (Sept 2018 version), and I can assure you that it is not a very reasonable paper™. It is a pile of hot garbage. Creationist trade magazines publish articles with more evolutionary content than “A Theory for Gender Differences in Variability”. A paper that proposes “to help explain how one gender [sic] of a species might tend to evolve with greater variability than the other gender [sic]” contains no genes, no alleles, no genetics, and no biology! There is no mention of pleiotropy, heritability, Fisher’s fundamental theorem, or the Price equation, all things which are relevant when talking about how complex traits respond to selection pressure. The formulation of Hill and Tabachnikov’s model is as far away from the models that we use in evolutionary biology as homeopathy is away from evidence-based medicine. It is very clear that the authors are unfamiliar with evolutionary biology and are probably also unfamiliar with cognitive research and biology. This is not a paper that should be celebrated for exploring taboo subjects, but a paper that should be laughed at for its sophomoric premise and execution.

Yes, it is “just” a toy model. However, a model is only a good as the assumptions it makes, and a model not based in biology cannot be used to learn anything about biology. The execution of Hill and Tabachnikov’s model is fundamentally flawed because it lacks any concept of genetics, and without genetics you have no way of concluding that a population will even respond to selection and even less hope of concluding how it will respond. Therefore, the paper’s central conclusion that “selectivity theory would predict a species whose males now generally exhibit more variability than its females” is stated without merit. It’s an extremely bad paper and should not be be published in a peer-reviewed journal in its current form. There are lots of other issues with the paper, but I chose to highlight this one because I’m an evolutionary geneticist.

Toy models are fun, but they have no business being used to understand the variation of human cognition. Sure its fun to play pretend, but this is an academic area with a lot of cultural baggage and potential policy outcomes. Shitty scholarship can do a lot of damage to real people, and Hill and Tabachnikov’s model is a great example of shitty scholarship. Shitty scholarship does nothing to move a scientific field forward, but it can be used to move public policy and public perceptions backwards.

The Panda’s Thumb was founded to counteract the influence of shitty creationist scholarship on public education, and many long-term readers should be well familiar with examples of shitty scholarship that didn’t hurt biology but did hurt biology education.

I encourage our readers to not fall for the seductive narrative that pesky bands of old-white dudes are being deplatformed because they radically refuse to conform to the oppressive norms of academic society. That’s the plot to Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, and we know how that turned out.

Paper is rejected twice: Cure is worse than disease

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A professor of mathematics, Theodore P. Hill, devised what is sometimes called a toy model to help explain why males of our species display greater variability than females. He submitted the paper to two journals in succession, and both rejected the paper after having previously accepted it.

As far as I can tell, the premise of the article, that males display greater variance (particularly of intelligence), is generally accepted. Professor Hill developed a toy model, which is to say an oversimplified model designed to shed some light on a complicated problem; the term is not pejorative. According to Prof. Hill’s account, he enlisted the help of another mathematician, Sergei Tabachnikov of Pennsylvania State University, and submitted the paper to the Mathematical Intelligencer. According to Prof. Hill, the manuscript was scheduled to appear in the journal’s first issue of 2018. What happens next, at least in Prof. Hill’s version, is complex, and I do not want to describe it in detail. The Penn State chapter of Women in Mathematics contacted Prof. Tabachnikov and warned him that he might appear to be supporting a set of sexist ideas and that many of their members have “strong disagreements” with the paper. Ultimately, someone contacted the National Science Foundation, which requested that their name be removed from the paper, and the journal rescinded its acceptance for fear that “the right-wing press” would use it to their advantage.

Ptyodactylus guttasus

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Photograph by Michael Siccha.

Photography Contest, Honorable Mention.

Sinai fan-fingered gecko
Ptyodactylus guttatus HEYDEN, 1827 – Sinai fan-fingered gecko. The photographer writes, "What I personally like most about the picture (and what you cannot really see on the image) is the location where I took it. The gecko sits on some of the stone tracery on the outside of the Chapel of Ascension on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. The red dots at the hip of the individual are parasitic mites, full of gecko blood."

What happens to cancer patients who choose "alternative" treatments?

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Perhaps a little off-topic for PT, but that is the headline of an article posted by Nutrition Action today. I think you can read it without a subscription. At any rate, researchers at Yale University School of Medicine identified 280 patients who chose unproven (“alternative”) treatments for several non-metastatic cancers: breast, prostate, lung, and colorectal, which the authors say are the 4 most prevalent cancers in the United States. The researchers compared these patients’ 5-year survival rates with 560 patients who chose conventional treatment (they did not study people who used unproven treatments in conjunction with conventional medicine).

Bottom line: The patients who chose the unproven treatments were substantially more likely to die of breast cancer, colorectal cancer, and lung cancer, though no more likely to die of prostate cancer.

Depressingly, the Nutrition Action article, written by Lindsay Moyer, noted, “Those who chose alternative treatments had higher socioeconomic status and education, were more likely to live in the western United States, and had fewer other illnesses than other patients.”

I looked up the original article here; it is available “FREE.” Like many articles in unfamiliar fields, it is largely Greek to me, so I scrolled down to the bottom to look at the figures. These are graphs that show the fraction of survivors vs. time from 0 to 84 months (7 years). The difference in survival is striking: even for prostate cancer, where around 90 % of patients survived the 84 months, the difference between the two groups is noticeable to the naked eye (even though it was apparently not statistically significant).

This was a small study, and I suppose the findings cannot be considered definitive. Still, it appears likely that those who choose an unproven treatment alone are taking a very considerable risk.