One of the most prominent proponents of thescientificallyinaccurateidea that “male and female brains” are biologically, categorically distinct went on a podcast this week and retracted some of his rhetoric. That’s great news! But in his retraction, Simon Baron-Cohen says people incorrectly jump to the conclusion that his is a “very sexist theory” because they “haven’t bothered reading the book” or his articles. He’s wrong there—reading closely reveals plenty of evidence for sexism as the origin of his theory—but it raises a larger issue. Baron-Cohen is right that reading the original text is important, that the history of science and ideas matters. Without it, modern incarnations of eugenics, phrenology, scientific sexism, and more are able to present themselves as new and progressive ideas.
Gender bias is pervasive in our society generally, and in the tech industry and AI research community specifically. So it is no surprise that image labeling systems—tools that use AI to generate text describing pictures—produce both blatantly sexist and more subtly gender biased results. Our new paper, out now and open access in Socius, adds more examples to the growing literature on gender bias in AI. More importantly, it provides a framework for researchers seeking to either investigate AI bias or to use potentially biased AI systems in their own work.
It looks like we’re in another “economic downturn,” and many PhDs are understandably worried about what it means for the future of the sociology job market. I haven’t been to Delphi or stayed at a Holiday Inn Express, but I am knee-deep in historical ASA reports. Here’s what the data look like for how the 2008 recession affected the sociology job market in the US. Spoiler: I don’t think the market ever recovered, and more hopeful estimates say it took 4 years to recover.
Last spring, Nicholas Christakis published his latest book, Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society. The title already sets the stage for some old-fashioned biological determinism.1 For anyone familiar with evolutionary psychology, it is 520 pages of mostly the same claims, logic, and citations as any other recent evopsych writing aimed at a general public readership. He’s a fan of Steven Pinker’s theses in Enlightenment Now and Blank Slate, and Pinker’s endorsement is prominent on the front cover of Blueprint. For those unfamiliar, the field is riven with “just-so stories,” or simplistic, largely unverifiable assertions about our evolutionary past that justify modern stereotypes and inequalities. The New Yorker summarizes and historicizes this pattern well. When it makes normative claims, evopsych tends to engage in the same is/ought fallacy that structural functionalism did: whatever we observe people doing must serve some necessary function—or else it wouldn’t have evolved—and so whatever is, ought to be. Social reformers beware: you’re meddling with forces beyond your comprehension and fighting against human nature.