The Royal Society is the world’s oldest scientific society, and is held in high regard. To be a Fellow of that society is a great accomplishment. I am glad to have friends who have achieved this status, including one of the few couples who are both Fellows.
So, it is a considerable surprise to learn that the Royal Society has awarded their science book prize to Cordelia Fine’s “Testosterone Rex”. Awarding such a prize strongly implies that the science being described is reasonably well established, and that the prize-winning books can be trusted to give a fair and balanced account of their research fields. The prize implies a quality standard. The Society says:
Judges praised Fine’s powerful book, Testosterone Rex, for its eye-opening, forensic look at gender stereotypes and its urgent call for change.
Testosterone Rex: Unmaking the Myths of Our Gendered Minds by psychologist and author Cordelia Fine is the 30th anniversary winner of the ‘Booker Prize of science writing’, the prestigious Royal Society Insight Investment Science Books Prize.
In Testosterone Rex, Fine uses the latest scientific evidence to challenge – and ultimately overturn – dominant views on both masculinity and femininity, calling for readers to rethink their differences whatever their sex.
Why do I doubt the wisdom of this award? Well, in my case it goes back years to debates about sex differences between Simon Baron-Cohen and Cordelia Fine. My assessment was that Baron-Cohen was publishing interesting studies, and that Fine was making criticisms without attempting to carry out replications. A research finding is not invalidated by a contrary hypothesis, since that merely outlines something which might be the explanation, and itself needs to be demonstrated. I judged that Baron-Cohen was a researcher and Fine was a mixture of critic and polemicist. As you may remember, Baron-Cohen confirmed to me recently that his work on neonate visual preferences (newborn boys prefer a mechanical mobile, newborn girls prefer a human face) has yet to be replicated and invalidated, and thus still stands 16 years later. Furthermore, on matters of detail, Fine’s criticisms of that study ignore the counterbalanced presentation actually used as a method.
It is a matter of judgment as to whether the debaters are being fair to the relevant literature. I felt that Fine was selective in her arguments, and lost confidence that she was reporting research findings in a balanced way.
I had always assumed that the Royal Society Science Book prize was awarded by the Fellows, and that they were consulted about the basic science as described in each of the books. It seems not.
Professor Richard Fortey FRS was joined on the judging panel by: award-winning novelist and games writer, Naomi Alderman; writer and presenter of BBC Radio 4’s All in the Mind, Claudia Hammond; Channel 4’s Topical Specialist Factual Commissioner, Shaminder Nahal and former Royal Society University Research Fellow, Sam Gilbert.
These are the basis facts I have been able to gather about the judging panel.
Prof Richard Fortey, FRS is a British palaeontologist, geologist by training, who served as President of the Geological Society of London, with a primary research interest in trilobites. He is the author of popular science books on a range of subjects including geology, palaeontology, evolution and natural history.
Naomi Alderman is a novelist, author and game designer. At Oxford she read Philosophy, Politics and Economics.
Claudia Hammond is a broadcaster, writer and part-time psychology lecturer at Boston University’s London base where she lectures in health and social psychology. She has written three popular books.
Shaminder Nahal is a television journalist, Deputy Editor of a news program.
Dr Sam Gilbert, Institute of Cognitive Science, UCL. Has a strong research record in cognitive neuro-psychology.
By my reckoning, Prof Richard Fortey and Dr Sam Gilbert certainly, and Claudia Hammond probably, would have been perfectly capable of evaluating the arguments in the winning book, and looking at the critical reviews of Fine’s work over the years, at least going back to 2010. They could not have been out-voted. More recent reviews might have helped them:
In my view, two points stand out in these reviews. 1) Sex differences may exist for reasons other than testosterone 2) Dr Fine sometimes gives a selective view of a research paper in her text, and a more balanced view in a footnote, which might mislead a casual reader.
The stated judgment of the committee was that the winner had overturned dominant views on masculinity and femininity. Prof Fortey said:
“A cracking critique of the ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’ hypothesis, Cordelia Fine takes to pieces much of the science on which ‘fundamental’ gender differences are predicated. Graced with precisely focused humour, the author makes a good case that men and women are far more alike than many would claim. Feminist? Possibly. Humanist? Certainly. A compellingly good read.”
Given that there will be a general perception that a prize-winning science book is full of prize winning science, I think it would be prudent for the panel to be composed of Fellows, or if that is not possible, to at least ask Fellows in the relevant disciplines to give all short-listed books a proper evaluation before they are given prizes on the basis of being a “good read”.