The problems with @RealPeerReview – Andy Murray

Below I have translated a review by Irene Barbiera of Priscille Touraille’s book, Hommes grands, femmes petites. I apologise for not having the permission to have done this, but I felt that it was in the public interest to do so given the current online ridicule Dr. Touraille’s work is receiving on Twitter by an Anglophone audience on @RealPeerReview. Dr. Touraille’s detractors base their judgement on an abstract of one of her papers of which they have not read. They also often seem to misinterpret the abstract itself, reading it as proposing an argument for sexual bimorphism in humans based upon contemporary differentiations in food distribution. Rather than access and translate that article, for which I have neither the money nor time, I think this translation of a review of a monograph by Dr. Touraille sufficiently demonstrates that the arguments she makes are much more rigorous that the Twitter page @RealPeerReview would have you believe. To @RealPeerReview: if you agree, then considering you have publicly encouraged your +13K followers to mock Dr. Touraille’s work, I think it is reasonable to ask you to make a public apology.

I made this translation to make another point. I have had an online conversation with @okayultra, one of the moderators of @RealPeerReview. We agreed on many points: that shoddy research practices happen in social science departments (even if we cannot assess its prevalence); that public transparency would help to eliminate such practices; and that engaging the public with such assessments can have a social benefit in that it can teach people to assess arguments on their merits, and not on the basis of authority. But as much as I agree with these aims, I do not agree with the means @RealPeerReview uses to achieve them. Posting an abstract on Twitter and encouraging uses to throw tomatoes at it does not constitute constructive debate, no matter how ridiculous the abstract may seem. It does not provide a fair hearing to the researchers pilloried in this way, nor does it create public engagement with academia: it only produces public mistrust.

There is undoubtedly bad research out there, research that indeed deserves derision. Two books that, I think, constructively ridicule bad science include Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science, and Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont’s Intellectual Impostures (the latter text takes aim at the same kind of trendy theory @RealPeerReview believes itself to be exposing). But such texts are able to lay out clearly the arguments they will be attacking, thus making the target of their humour particular instances of poor argumentation, rather than an entire academic field. Such books strengthen one’s faith in academic practices to overcome bullshit and obscurantism, rather than encourage one to dismiss academia as such types of bad practice. In contrast, @RealPeerReview provides an environment where thousands of Twitter users are baited into ridiculing academic work they haven’t read. It is an ugly spectacle.

Such an environment is not solely produced by @RealPeerReview. One of the many scandals of academic publishing is its inaccessibility: it can cost >£20 to access one article. This is crippling for independent scholars (as I know!) and for fostering public engagement. When I defended an article posted on @RealPeerReview as potentially having some merit, I was informed by @okayultra that she had read it and judged it as worthless. Maybe I would have come to the same conclusion if I had read it. But that is the point, I had not and I could not read it (unless I paid the publisher for the privilege). @RealPeerReview’s followers are therefore ultimately left to @RealPeerReview’s judgement on which articles do and do not deserve public mockery. But, I ask, what authority do they have to claim such a position? As the case of Priscille Touraille’s research demonstrates, they have none.

Maybe I am too sensitive about this whole thing. But I do care about public engagement with academic research. I care a lot. If you were also shocked by how academic advice was summarily dismissed during the Brexit debates (Michael Gove claimed live on television: “The public have had enough of experts”), then you also would be concerned. I fear that @RealPeerReview may be the only contact some people have with academic research. I also fear that the site can be used to reinforce anti-intellectual prejudices. Such prejudices have real and negative social consequences, as Brexit, in my view, demonstrates.

So, @RealPeerReview, I applaud you in your aims to create greater public engagement with academics and to discourage poor research practices. I just ask you to find other means to do it.

Andy Murray, 23/10/2016

 

Updates: 28/10/2016

the original Twitter conversation is here: https://twitter.com/RealPeerReview/status/789798462762070016

@RealPeerReview’s response to my criticisms are here: https://twitter.com/RealPeerReview/status/789798462762070016

As of the 28th of October, this page has had over 1000 hits. I expected it would be around 10. Thank you to those who have been retweeting this discussion, particularly @RealPeerReview. AM

 

Translation of: Irene Barbiera, « Priscille Touraille, Hommes grands, femmes petites : une évolution coûteuse. Les régimes de genre comme force sélective de l’évolution biologique », Clio. Femmes, Genre, Histoire [En ligne], 37 | 2013, mis en ligne le 02 septembre 2013, consulté le 22 octobre 2016. URL : http://clio.revues.org/11364

(I apologise for any mistranslations AM).

One does not need to have exceptional perspicacity to observe de visu that women are generally smaller than men. But why? How do natural selection and biological factors operate to produce such dimorphism? What is the role of culture and notably of eating habits in the formation of the differences in height between men and women? And, more generally, how does culture influence the biological processes? The vast and fascinating inquiry conducted by Priscille Touraille considers the range of theories produced by researchers who attempt to explain the dimorphism observed in certain species of animal and in humans. Against the common idea, and defended by numerous scientists, that the difference in height is a purely natural phenomenon, the author demonstrates that there is often conflicts in the data with regards to sexual dimorphism, between the biological success that selects tall women and cultural practices that lead them to being small.

In her introduction, Priscille Touraille examines the genetic aspects of growth. Researchers accord to genetic transmission considerable importance, but also to the conditioning of this by environmental factors and by nutrition especially. Failing to identify a gene for growth that is linked to sex, they have restricted themselves to environmental conditions: the proteins and especially the animal proteins being largely responsible for the growth amongst humans. But they have faced the fact that the range of sexual dimorphism in different species often results in females larger than males, showing that there does not exist in nature a unique mechanism that regulates the differences in height between the two sexes.

The first part of the book examines successively three types of theory. First, those founded upon the selection of the males, i.e., that the larger win in sexual competition as much as in animals as in humans. Chief amongst these theories is Darwinism, for which the large males will receive a greater success in the process of reproduction, even if smaller individuals will have a better chance of survival during food-shortages. From the 20th century, Richard Alexander has applied to humans this Darwinian “law of combat”. In this hypothesis, the males will be larger than the females in polygamous societies where the competition for females is more stark– theories taken apart by the empirical data collected by Phyllis Evelth who, in 1975, had demonstrated exactly the contrary: sexual dimorphism is stronger in Europe and Asia where monogamy dominates and weaker in Africa and New Guinea where polygamy is more widespread.

Next, the theory of David W. Frayer who, in the 1980s, invoked the differentiation in tasks to explain sexual dimorphism. The hypothesis is not confirmed by the data on contemporary populations. That said, if the difference in height is not directly tied to the division of labour, the latter is at the root of gender differentiation within societies, which produces the domination of males over females and their control of the resources, aspects of which the author returns to in the last part of the book.

Finally, the author reviews the theories that emphasize the female preference for large males that protect them and their offspring from predators, or who are able to cover greater distances in search of food (Owen Lovejoy). This theory, however, is contradictory, since the departed males deprive females and their young from protection.

The second part of the book analyses the most recent theories according to which selective pressure acts not only upon males, but also on females. If the theories based on “the law of combat” involve greater food requirements for the large males, primatologists have shown that those of females, increased by pregnancy and lactation, are more completely satisfied by small mothers. The physical anthropologist Katherine Ralls, for her part, sees in the “large mothers” an advantage in reproduction because, in living longer, they will have a longer productive life and have a greater and more resistant offspring. But on the other hand, female size is restricted by the limitation of resources and this will work in favour of smaller females. What P. Touraille responds is that, according to numerous studies, nutritional stress is not characteristic of dimorphic species, but on the contrary the relative height of females depends on their access to food (italicization in original AM). Ethological studies attests priority access to food resources for women in non-dimorphic species, whereas in dimorphic species, for example, in orangutans, the existence of differentiated food niches ensures priority access for males, which the author identifies as “antagonistic coevolution”: the more successful the reproduction of large males, the less success for small females (au succès reproductif des grands males répondrait le moindre succès des femelles petites).

The third part of the work concerns human dimorphism. It concerns itself with identifying the best model for explaining the phenomenon and its variations in space and time. Several physical anthropologists were interested in the effects of diet in affluent and well fed societies where the size differential plays in favour of boys (Linda Wolfe & Patrick Gray), and in other societies where it is weak and girls are less affected than their brothers by scarcity (Margaret Hamilton), notably in those where food production is in the hands of women (Claire Holden & Ruth Mace).

Obstetricians have contributed to the debate by recalling that bipedalism and upright posture led to the reduction in the size of the pelvis and therefore produced a more risky childbirth for small women, and even increased the mortality in childbirth, as confirmed by recent statistical studies for societies where caesarean section is not practiced. In high fertility societies there would therefore be produced a counter-selection (une contre-sélection) of small women and, consequently, a reduction of dimorphism (JF Guégan, Teriokhin A. T. & F. Thomas). Thus, in the human species, natural selection would be exercised for large women more strongly than in other species. But in these conditions, why are women, in fact, smaller than men?

The last part of the book returns to this question, which concentrates on the cultural factor of food and in particular the refusal of better food to women, which would explain their smaller stature. The ethnographic approach shows that hunter-gatherer societies and farmers are deprived of reproductive success when they exclude women from access to protein, which would both strengthen and limit the size of the foetus. There remain two important points. The study of the gendered consumption of proteins is developed for adults but one for children remains to be done, since child nutrition or determines their adult stature; therefore, the hypothesis of a nutritional segregation as a source of sexual dimorphism should be primarily tested on children. Secondly, archaeologists and historians have often emphasized the limits of the contributions of ethnography in understanding the development of humanity.

It is only recently that the isotope analysis of bones began to illuminate prehistorical uses of food, but it can still tell us whether to attribute human dimorphism to the millennia of food segregation and female deprivation, an intriguing question raised by this book. To my eyes, the main merit of Hommes grands, femmes petites  is to have questioned the naturalistic paradigm, often held for granted by scientists. P. Touraille shows with nuance that cultural behaviours can strongly influence the physical traits of humans and that gendered behaviours contribute to create different sexual bodies, often against natural tendencies. This book therefore invites reflection on the interaction between biology and culture that shapes everyday life. Such is the reflection initiated by the multidisciplinary approach of Priscilla and it is this method of analysis that we have to develop to understand the human condition yesterday and today.

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Welcome Class!

Welcome Class (click the link) is an illustration that went on the front cover of the first London Student newspaper of the 2011-2012 academic year. I tried to sum up both the happenings in London over the summer and what these happening must look like to an undergraduate coming to London to start his first year of university. Seeing that I was able to do it over my holiday, I was able to spend considerable time on it. In particular, I spent two hours on the skin of the London Mayor making him look like the complete rash he really is. There are plenty of other details to enjoy, so I hope you like it.

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