Elise Andrew: "There is a lot of pseudo-science and nonsense out there on the internet"

The founder of the hugely popular "I Fucking Love Science" Facebook group talks to Nicky Woolf.

Elise Andrew, 23, from Suffolk, graduated with a degree in biology from the University of Sheffield this year. Nine months ago she founded the Facebook page “I Fucking Love Science”, which last week passed two million “likes” on the social networking site and is still climbing. Her other three pages, “Earth Story”, “Evolution” and “The Universe” boast almost a further million "likes" between them.

Her posts are usually either amazing new photographs, news of new discoveries or theories or light-hearted re-posts of science-related cartoons or humour, or, occasionally, posts debunking what she describes as “pseudo-science”. Because of her incredible global audience, she is one of science's most potent advocates.

Here's my interview with Elise:

You've just passed two million “likes” - that's a greater reach than most big media organisations. How does it feel?
It's overwhelming. It's very overwhelming. I don't know how much you know about how it started, but I was just bored and interested; I never anticipated getting even a hundred, a thousand – two million is very scary!

Does it feel pressured?
It is, obviously. I haven't got any media or journalism training, [and] it is a lot of responsibility; if I show something inaccurate or wrong, it goes out to two million people. There is a lot of pressure involved. I live in fear of making a typo.

Has anything ever gone wrong?
I've never shown things that were inaccurate. Somebody tried to troll Reddit and faked a Neil Degrasse Tyson quote, and I shared it not realising it was a fake. With quotes it's much more difficult to track; it's something that happened to go online, and it's difficult to keep track of who said what and when. I'm using quotes less now.

Where do most of your posts come from? Do you use Reddit?
I don't actually use Reddit myself – but a lot of my fans do, and they post on the wall. A lot of it is news, and that comes from various different news sites. We get a lot of stuff posted on the wall, and I create a lot myself.

You recently said that your "this week in science" feature was your most shared.
Yeah. It got a mention on [popular American comedy podcast] the Joe Rogan Experience; and Richard Dawkins' website reposted it.

How did that feel?
Good! Really good, actually. The person who mentioned it on the Joe Rogan experience, [neuroscientest and science journalist Cara Santa Maria] is a hero of mine, so that was very exciting.

How did the idea come up?
I used to post all this stuff to my personal page, one day a friend of mine said “you're clogging up my news feed, you should make a page” – and I got a thousand "likes" in the first day.

Why do you think it has been so successful? Does the name have something to do with it?
I think the name is a big part of it. The nice thing about the name is that you can't ignore it, you have to go and look. A lot of people view science as dull or boring, and I think the stance we take, using humour, not taking ourselves too seriously... I think people enjoy that. I think it's quite refreshing.

How much time does it take to run the page?
It is a lot of time. It is kind of an obsession, to be honest, and I'm lucky that I work in social media and I got my job through [running the page], so they don't mind me doing it at work. It's hard to put a number of hours on it, because it's kind of constant in the background. But: a lot.

Where next?
We're looking at making a website at the moment; somewhere I can post longer articles. It's not that you don't have space on Facebook, but I think I'd lose people's attention. Hmm. People have been asking about merchandise for months and months, but I'm wary about it. Then there's the Science Channel thing. There's lots of things people want for the page, but at the moment it's something I do for fun. I don't want it to change direction too much, I don't want it to become something different. I think it's fun, and I think people learn along the way, because they enjoy it.

Has the site led to other things?
We're in the middle of talking to the Science Channel about a deal, that's very exciting. Not anything huge; a nine-month thing. Short educational videos, only online, testing the waters. Then maybe it will develop into more in the future. I got my job... I work for LabX Media doing their social media, and a whole bunch of pages for them, I got that job because of this page.

Do you feel you are a representative for good science, against bad?
It is difficult, because we get a lot of nonsense posted on our wall. All this stuff about about when the world's going to end, or that we are going into some "photonic belt"... I do feel the need to respond to that. I try to let it go, but after the fiftieth message it becomes very frustrating. I'm trying not to, because it's good not to give these people a platform... but there are times when it becomes very frustrating.

Like the picture you ridiculed the other day of the supposed planetary alignment over the pyramids?
Yes. People were posting it to my wall fifty million times a day. It is frustrating. There is a lot of pseudo-science and nonsense out there on the internet, and everyone feels the need to send it to me. And I'm sitting there thinking: it isn't real! Stop it!

Are you in a good position to debunk this sort of thing?
Yes. [Newspapers like] the Guardian are too, but the thing about social media is the virality; that kind of reach is incredible. But a lot of pseudo-science spreads online too. All the stuff about the Mayans: that spread online. Often, some people dress something up to make it sound scientific, use scientific words, call themselves doctor something-or-other, and then you look them up, and they're trying to make it sound like something it's not. There's this entire field that's adding the word “quantum” to everything. It doesn't even make sense in that context. The latest thing is people talking about the "photonic belt" that the earth is apparently going to pass through – it doesn't mean anything, but it sounds like science – "photons" – so people take it seriously.

Do you want to be debunking pseudo-science more?
I want to, but I think that's not as much fun. And it gives them a platform that they don't deserve. For example, I would love to spend all day talking about how idiotic creationism is; the idea that the world was created six thousand years ago, but people don't want to hear about it every day.

Do you get abuse?
We get a lot of commenting, there are flame-wars under the threads; we've had individuals commenting, but no group attacks. I think they expect to be called idiotic. If you're going to believe crazy things, people are going to laugh at you.

 

Elise Andrew's most recent "this week in science" feature. Photo: the “I Fucking Love Science” Facebook group

Nicky Woolf is a freelance writer based in the US who has formerly worked for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

Photo: Getty
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We're asking the wrong questions about the Google “anti-diversity memo”

Which sex is better at what skills is less important than which skills we value in the first place. 

Yes, I feel sorry for the Google employee who has been fired for writing an "anti diversity manifesto" and circulating it within the company. (Guess what? It leaked.) Losing your job is painful, and doing it in public is even more so. But the conversation around this is heading in such an unproductive direction (do women suck at maths?) that I can't resist wading in.

I agree with the writer that these issues are hard to talk about, but that pushback comes from both directions. Look at the crap Mary Beard is wading through for trying to inject some facts into a discussion about the racial composition of Roman Britain. Nicholas Nassim Taleb keeps honking about "diversity genes" and refusing to listen to evidence that contradicts him. But in his mind, he's Mr Science - sorry, Professor Science - and she's Madam Arts-Subject.

This matters, because when it comes to diversity, there are fact-based positions on both sides. Yet there is a certain strand of Rational Internet Thinker (let's be honest, mostly men) who solemnly tells everyone that we Must Stick To The Facts while advancing deeply ideological stances, which only happen to look "natural" because they are so embedded in our culture. 

But back to the subject at hand. Here's the recap: the memo was headlined  "Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber" and its writer's firing will be taken as confirmation that his thesis was true. Ironically, this will be done by the same section of the right which usually has no problem with firing at will and normally thinks that HR should be a brutally Darwinian process. (Looked at from that perspective, of course Google would fire someone who brought such criticism on the company.) But now there are Principles involved. Probably Free Speech is under attack. Political Correctness may even have Gone Mad. Social Justice Warriors are on the march. Before it's all placards as far as the eye can see, instead I would like to look at what was actually said, and whether it's an argument with any merit. 

In essence, the memo argued that the gender imbalance of staff in tech companies like Google is primarily the result of biological, not cultural differences. ("They’re universal across human cultures," it argued. "They often have clear biological causes and links to prenatal testosterone".) There are differences in ability between the sexes, the writer said, and that's why most top programmers are men. Men like numbers, and the numbers like them right back.

The memo added:

Differences in distributions of traits between men and women may in part explain why we don’t have 50% representation of women in tech and leadership. Discrimination to reach equal representation is unfair, divisive, and bad for business.

The section about typically female traits is also interesting, because of a couple of points the writer picks out.

"Women, on average, have more...

- Openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas. Women generally also have a stronger interest in people rather than things, relative to men (also interpreted as empathizing vs. systemizing).

- These two differences in part explain why women relatively prefer jobs in social or artistic areas. More men may like coding because it requires systemizing and even within SWEs, comparatively more women work on front end, which deals with both people and aesthetics.

- Extraversion expressed as gregariousness rather than assertiveness. Also, higher agreeableness. This leads to women generally having a harder time negotiating salary, asking for raises, speaking up, and leading. Note that these are just average differences and there’s overlap between men and women, but this is seen solely as a women’s issue. This leads to exclusory programs like Stretch and swaths of men without support.

- Neuroticism (higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance).This may contribute to the higher levels of anxiety women report on Googlegeist and to the lower number of women in high stress jobs.  

Well, SOMEONE has been reading their Simon Baron Cohen. The first point is a distillation of Baron Cohen's argument about "male brains" being better at understanding systems, and "female brains" being better at feelings - which he extends to say that autistic traits might be an "extreme male brain". Unsurprisingly, there are other scientists in the field, such as Cordelia Fine and Rebecca Jordan-Young, who find a lot of the neuroscience of sex difference quite flaky.

I'm not a neuroscientist, but from a lay perspective, my take is that yes, there are some biological differences between the average male and female brain, but that these pale beside a) the way our brain architecture is shaped by stimuli (like years of being told you're rubbish at maths) and b) the overall effect of culture (eg companies which value presenteeism, or make it hard for women to return after having children, or cover up for senior men who are repeated sexual harassers etc etc). 

The "higher agreeableness" point was dealt with by Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In. Women aren't stupidly not asking for raises or being assertive in the office because they are delicate little flowers. One of the reasons they are more agreeable at work is because they face heavier penalties if they are not. As Sandberg formulates it: "Success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively for women. When a man is successful, he is liked by both men and women. When a woman is successful, people of both genders like her less.” Women are nicer because there are more negative consequences for them if they are not nice.

The last point about neuroticism is bleakly funny, because while women might report more anxiety, men commit suicide in far greater numbers. Which gender is really more susceptible to stress and anxiety? Women talking more about their mental health on "Googlegeist" is being held against them here, when possibly one of the reasons that more men kill themselves is because of the stigma of talking about their feelings.

Overall, the memo makes some compelling points, but it also chucks in a lot of stuff that "everyone knows" about sex differences, which isn't scientifically supported, and also some evolutionary psychology about "protecting females" which strays into the kind of rhetoric found on MRA sites. Its understanding of male and female work patterns can also be naive, for example:

"Yes, in a national aggregate, women have lower salaries than men for a variety of reasons. For the same work though, women get paid just as much as men. Considering women spend more money than men and that salary represents how much the employees sacrifices (e.g. more hours, stress, and danger), we really need to rethink our stereotypes around power."  

I mean, doesn't this just raise a huge number of questions?

How often do men and women do the same work, and for what reasons might they not? (Clue: women do far more unpaid care work and housework.) Are women spending that money on themselves, or are they running household budgets, which is an unpaid project-management task they are doing alongside any paid work? What an individual finds stressful is also entirely subjective.

The author chucks in a reference to "Marxist intellectuals" but doesn't seem to have read any of the vast and fascinating literature on unpaid care and its interaction with paid work. I'd recommend starting with The Second Shift or Wife Work. Angela Saini's Inferior is a good recent choice, too, on women's overlooked contributions to science.

When I talk about feminism with self-styled rationalist men, this dynamic comes up again and again. They will present my arguments as mere anecdote and emotion, which - sad shake of the head - is contradicted by the available evidence. When you point to peer-reviewed studies, or great ethnographies, supporting your point, which they haven't bothered to read, they steam on regardless. It makes the contest deeply unequal. Internet skeptic types talk about the need to engage with writers they don't agree with, and the importance of free and open debate, but often actually don't want to read the contrary view. 

 

***

If you want to read more about the discussion of the science of sex differences which has arisen as a result of this memo, then this piece by Slate Star Codex is interesting - it argues that interest in STEM subjects, not ability, might be the key difference between the sexes. It also completely misses the point. 

Here's a thought experiment. Say you were recruiting for a spoon-juggler. Your advert would probably mention "needs to juggle spoons". But, almost certainly, there would be other skills involved. Turning up to performances on time. Keeping your spoon inventory in check. Not turning up drunk. Not stealing forks from the fork-juggler. 

This is what the argument that women can't succeed in tech because they are innately bad at the skills needed to succeed in tech sounds like to me. We know that many of the early programmers were women, back when the job was considered to be largely secretarial. (Go watch Hidden Figures for more on this, and also because it's just a lovely film and I am so happy for Mahershala Ali and Taraji P. Henson.) We know that the fastest way to depress wages in a job is to feminise its workforce. It's not unreasonable to wonder if we've constructed the whole idea of "success in tech" in such a way that it makes men's success look natural and pre-ordained. Yes, you need to be able to code to be a coder. But there are other skills you need too. 

Yonatan Zunger, who recently left Google, makes this argument better than I could. And he seems to own a pair of testicles, so you know he's more rational and objective than me:

"Essentially, engineering is all about cooperation, collaboration, and empathy for both your colleagues and your customers. If someone told you that engineering was a field where you could get away with not dealing with people or feelings, then I’m very sorry to tell you that you have been lied to. Solitary work is something that only happens at the most junior levels, and even then it’s only possible because someone senior to you — most likely your manager — has been putting in long hours to build up the social structures in your group that let you focus on code.

All of these traits which the manifesto described as “female” are the core traits which make someone successful at engineering. Anyone can learn how to write code; hell, by the time someone reaches L7 or so, it’s expected that they have an essentially complete mastery of technique. The truly hard parts about this job are knowing which code to write, building the clear plan of what has to be done in order to achieve which goal, and building the consensus required to make that happen.

All of which is why the conclusions of this manifesto are precisely backwards. It’s true that women are socialised to be better at paying attention to people’s emotional needs and so on — this is something that makes them better engineers, not worse ones."

As I said on Twitter, this is a pattern we see again and again - a high status job is coded as "male", requiring "male" traits, to justify men's dominance of it. The same thing happens in politics: we are assured that politicians need to be "strong" and "decisive", when many of the most successful male politicians today have incredible people skills. Jeremy Corbyn makes time for everyone he meets, hugging them and posing for endless selfies. Sadiq Khan has that Queen Mum ability to remember your name and a key fact about you. What's the real difference between the Clintons? Bill demonstrated huge empathy and made people he was talking to feel special; Hillary didn't. But still, maybe men dominate politics because they are just more aggressive and ambitious. Yeah, OK. 

Tech suffers from a similar silent rewriting of core competencies to flatter its mostly male leaders.

We have all these conversations about how hard it is for Mark Zuckerberg to make the leap to being a frontman CEO because he's a maths guy, not a people guy. We treat this like he's doing an amazing project of personal growth. We don't go, "wow, they really lowered the bar for CEOs to let someone without some of the key skills have a go at it". Or, "his poor colleagues, having to make up for the stuff he's not naturally gifted at". 

There was a similar reaction when Sergey Brin and Larry Page brought in Eric Schmidt when it was time for Google to "grow up". We didn't say, "How embarrassing, they have to find someone to counteract their deficiencies." We said: "Smart move. Not every human can possess all skills, it's wise to have a range of experience and aptitudes at the top of your company."

So this, for me, is the most interesting takeaway from the Google memo. "Do women suck at maths" is a complicated question, and I'm not sure how far answering it will move the conversation forwards. "Have we structured society so that those competitions between the sexes that men can win are deemed to be the most important competitions?" is a better one.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.