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Knocking over Straw Man – NUS Scientists make unremarkable arguments

Dr Wong Peiyuan’s letter, co-signed by 13 other Academic scientists from NUS and Yale-NUS, is a most unremarkable one.

Allow me to quote their letter in full but by breaking their arguments down into paragraphs:

  1. AS ACADEMIC scientists working in the life sciences, we are alarmed by the claims in the controversial Focus on the Family relationship workshop. The scientific research examining sex differences in brain wiring and function simply does not justify teaching young adults damaging gender stereotypes, such as the claims that only women are “emotional” or that men have no self-control in sexual situations.

Dr Wong’s letter is premised upon “straw man arguments”. In a “straw man argument”, the author attacks an argument different from and weaker than the opposition’s best argument. To “set up a straw man argument” is to create a position that is easy to refute, then attribute that position to the opponent.  A straw man argument can be a successful rhetorical technique i.e. it may succeed in persuading people, but it is in fact a misleading fallacy, because the opponent’s actual argument has not been refuted.

Dr Wong begins her arguments by building a straw man – one that claims that FOTF has said ONLY women are “emotional” and MEN HAVE NO self-control in sexual situations. Did FOTF really say that? Only if you take Agatha’s claims seriously. However, basic discernment would tell us, not everything on the internet is true. Especially when you have a young, radical sounding, 17 year old student accusing a reputable, MOE approved organization of promoting rape. It should at least raise your eyebrows; unless you are absolutely naïve. Or, you have an agenda against that organization – and this presents you an opportunity to join in the attack.

As Academic scientists, I am sure Dr Wong and her colleagues should have some level of discernment, and alarm bells should have rung in their heads regarding Agatha’s claims. Why then have they not been more objective in their search for facts (they should be more than qualified to know how to do so)? They could perhaps, obtain the workshop booklet for themselves to understand the context where the generalizations were made. At the very least, they can read the writings of those who had seen the booklet e.g. like this blogger and the Straits Times.

Or they could have, like how SUFF wrote in point 2 of their rebuttal, studied Agatha’s own self-contradictory statements. Agatha had written, “the facilitators did make clear that these gender stereotypes they were promoting were subject to “some exceptions” and that they should be taken lightly.” If Dr Wong and her colleagues have studied Agatha’s statements carefully, they would have realized that Agatha has actually dissolved FOTF of the same responsibility that has been unjustifiably cast on them.

In other words, FOTF has never claimed that ALL men are like this or ALL women are like that.

As scientists who study, research and rely on evidences, day in day out of your work, at the highest rungs of the academic profession, it is astonishing that 14 of them would have missed these evidences out!

Instead, they created a straw man, misrepresented FOTF’s position, refute it, and pretend that their opponent’s actual position has been refuted.

  1. During development, males and females are exposed to different circulating hormones, which lead to some sex-based differences in brain structures. However, these structures show substantial individual variability as well, and male and female distributions overlap. As such, one cannot even reliably use these structural differences to determine the sex of a given brain.

Scientist, being scientists, should know of facts regarding physiology and development. So, they should share some of this information right? This was done in paragraph 2. The only thing is, much of what they highlighted is obvious!

They said, “these structures show substantial individual variability.. and male and female distributions overlap..” Aren’t these pretty obvious facts to everyone? There are obviously differences between a man and another man, and a woman and another woman – who wouldn’t know that? There are also men who are very in-tuned with their emotions, and there are sportswomen who might be physically stronger than even some men. Again, who wouldn’t have seen those bodybuilding covers of exceptionally muscular women?

Nevertheless, note the fact that the Academic scientists did concede (EMPHASIS mine) – “males and females are exposed to DIFFERENT circulating hormones, which lead to SOME sex-based differences in brain structures”. Hey guys, I am not creating a straw man here – this affirming remark came from scientists themselves.

  1. On the whole, the brains of males and females are remarkably similar. The same holds true for many mental abilities and behaviours, albeit again with significant individual differences.
  2. Sex-based differences in brain structure and wiring do not reliably produce the large-scale behavioural differences found in gender stereotypes. Also, sex differences in social, linguistic and mathematical abilities have been shown to be modest, if present at all.

Paragraphs 3 and 4 talk about how male-females brains are remarkably similar, including our abilities and behaviours. Depending on the context and what you are emphasizing on, this statement can definitely be true.

For example, if you are studying how human brains compare with say, the brains of other life forms or species of animals, our conclusion will definitely be – human brains, even that of a male and a female’s, are remarkably similar! It’s not wrong at all to say that.

However, consider another context. If you are holding a relationship class, trying to explain to clueless males and females about generalized gender differences, so as to build understanding and communication, you would have to emphasize on the differences between male-female body and brains!

Try telling the man that females have menstrual cycles but she is really still the same as him, or tell the female that men are easily stimulated visually but he is not any different from her, you would end up confusing more than helping them.

So the crux of the matter again is, context, context; context! I hope these scientists understand that there is a vast difference in the context they are quoting and the actual context of the workshop.

  1. Unfortunately, the idea of “hardwired differences” tends to attract attention and excitement. Everyday findings of similarity between male and female brains and behaviours are not deemed sensational enough to generate headlines. In contrast, numerous studies have found that girls and boys are often treated differently in familial and societal settings.
  2. Many behavioural differences may be predominantly caused by the social environment, rather than being the inevitable result of sex alone. As the social environment includes education, getting sexuality education right is of great importance.

Paragraphs 5 and 6 highlight how the social environment influences male, female development and behaviour. I am in agreement with this. I do not think FOTF is opposed to this fact as well.

However, I guess the question here is one of rationality. Take for example, we all know that rape is real; rape can be promoted. None of us wants that. The question is, what promotes rape?

Agatha’s claims, which assumed that the mere mentioning of differences in gender amounts to the promotion of the rape culture, is far-fetched and irrational. It is likely based on radical but irrational ideologies which I have expounded in detail in my previous post.

It is interesting that in the midst of all this, another 17 year old girl showed a much better understanding of what truly promotes rape, and did something that all people who are truly against the rape culture would applaud. Now I am sure FOTF as a pro-family organization, would wish to promote a social environment that Gabrielle is advocating for as well – one that truly values womenfolk.

  1. After decades of research examining male and female brains and mental abilities, the evidence of stark sex-based differences – in both gross brain function and the majority of our cognitive functions – is weak at best. Behaviour is a combination of nature and nurture. How the brain produces behaviour reflects a multitude of factors, including environmental, social and biological influences.

Paragraph 7 is a combination of arguments, like a summary of sorts, regarding how male-female brains are more similar than different, and how social environmental factors are important – points which I had already addressed.

  1. Ultimately, the gender stereotypes in the Focus on the Family pamphlet do not reflect either scientific consensus or careful, data-driven analysis. There is, for instance, simply no credible scientific evidence for the view that men are inherently “direct”, whereas women’s words cannot be taken at face value. These gender stereotypes are inaccurate and harmful, and the force of scientific research should not be misused to support them.

The scientists throw in their last straw man in Paragraph 8 – “There is, for instance, simply no credible scientific evidence for the view that men are inherently “direct”, whereas women’s words cannot be taken at face value.”

Of course, this is again, a sure win for them. But, as academics, they should really stop cherry picking straw man arguments to knock over victoriously.

Why didn’t they counter “‘Guys are visual’ not a gender stereotype”? Why didn’t they counter the scientific basis of the founder’s research? Or even SUFF’s 5 points  that had debunked Agatha’s claims argument for argument? How about addressing Ian’s account which had uncovered Agatha’s fabrications?

The answer is easily discerned – because truth cannot be countered. It can only be obscured, distracted from or silenced (by ignoring it).


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