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.