Author Topic: Sex as binary or spectrum  (Read 1729 times)

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Online Andrew Clunn

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Sex as binary or spectrum
« on: May 04, 2017, 11:00:26 PM »
This right here is the most honest and scientific take on the subject I have ever seen.

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Re: Sex as binary or spectrum
« Reply #1 on: May 05, 2017, 12:12:15 AM »
I agreed with most of her reasoning and points, but found her conclusions halfway and at the end to be kind of non-sequitur or flawed.


In the middle: The science here is fine, but I find her reasoning regarding classification of what counts as a spectrum completely off base.

On her claim that we see a light spectrum as a rainbow with equally distributed colours: Thats flat out false. The human eye is significantly more sensitive to some colours than others and we see some colours more vibrantly than others. We see significant banding in a rainbow, even though the light wavelengths are continuous. We dont only refer to a purely even distribution of light as a light spectrum; we also in common usage would look at, for example, an "emission spectrum" for various phenomona or for electronic devices that may have very sizeable peaks and valleys similar to her graph.

Even if it were true, its just an argument from antiquity. The connection of the word spectrum exclusively to light is a historical artifact only, and doesnt match either dictionary definition or common use. Dictionary definitions still cite the light-related usage, but invariably have a 2nd point for other modern usage. For example, we commonly see people talk about "political spectrum" even though there are certain clearly distinguished groupings between political parties and affiliations. Another example, "broad-spectrum antibiotics" - antibiotics that are effective against two clearly delineated types of bacteria (gram-positive, and gram-negative), but are classed as a spectrum because they match the modern definition of a range of related ideas with some overlapping elements.

She then goes on to say that there are a finite and discreet number of sexually dimorphic traits. While that is technically true, there are probably a discreet number of traits, a number of the traits themselves are not finite or discreet values. Hormone level, for example, is one of the measures she used at the beginning of the clip and is not a discreet value for practical purposes.
(You would have to get down to the level of measuring individual hormone molecules in the bloodstream. Eg, testosterone is present in the bloodstream at levels from about 0.5 to 40 nmol/L, which is a range of about 39.5x1016 different discreet values of molecules - Id call that not discreet to any practical or currently measurable purpose).

In my opinion, what she presented fits very well with being called a spectrum.


At the ending: She says that "for our intents and purposes [a binary classification] works just fine". I feel like thats a major unstated assumption. She hasnt really defined what her "intent and purpose" is, nor made an argument one way or the other for how well it works. Given that its the point which is most likely to be objected to, particularly by people who fall outside of the "most of the time" that it might be suitable, I think she failed to make a case for that conclusion - in fact, she never really attempted to. Its a non-sequitur from the rest of her presentation.
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Online Andrew Clunn

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Re: Sex as binary or spectrum
« Reply #2 on: May 05, 2017, 01:03:54 AM »
I find that rebuttal needlessly pedantic giving her clear explanation of the refutation of "spectrum" being based on assertion that the term represented an evenly distributed set.  You yourself seem to be attempting to assert as much in your insistence that we break down hormone levels to distinct numerical values for the amount of a given hormone in one's blood.  This increased number of categorizations has no impact on the shape of the distribution itself however.  That is a fact that she even covers directly and explicitly in the "nature not providing an ideal for abstraction" section.  Her argument for the binary set was that there are two clear peeks in the data, it fits for the vast majority of cases, and this is merely a heuristic anyways, so it should be pragmatic.
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Offline Caffiene

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Re: Sex as binary or spectrum
« Reply #3 on: May 05, 2017, 01:57:34 AM »
I find that rebuttal needlessly pedantic giving her clear explanation of the refutation of "spectrum" being based on assertion that the term represented an evenly distributed set.

The assertion that the term represents an evenly distributed set is exactly what Im rebutting. I dont see how the fact that she asserted it makes it needless to rebutt? I am disagreeing with and rebutting her assertion.

You yourself seem to be attempting to assert as much in your insistence that we break down hormone levels to distinct numerical values for the amount of a given hormone in one's blood.  This increased number of categorizations has no impact on the shape of the distribution itself however.

The point that she is wrong about the characteristics being discrete and finite is separate to the point that she is wrong about the definition of spectrum.

She is making two claims:
Claim 1: An assertion that the definition of spectrum does not include things which present obvious peaks and valleys. I disagree with and dismiss this definition. Emission spectrum, political spectrum, and broad-spectrum antibiotics are examples of usage which conflict with her assertion of the definition.

If you really wanted to stick with claim 1, and judge the video based just on its consistency with its starting assertions, then yes you can conclude that sex is not a spectrum. But "I conclude this thing matches this word based on my definitions that nobody uses" is not a useful conclusion. It doesnt refute Bill Nye to use a non-standard definition, its just a failed argument via equivocation.


Claim 2: That discrete and finite factors can not be collected into a spectrum. I agree with this claim, but argue that it is not relevant because there are factors present that are not discrete and finite.

You've got completely the wrong end of the stick regarding breaking down hormone level. My point is that it is not discrete unless we break it down to that level, and that there is no reason (or practical ability) to break it down to that level. Im not at all insisting we break it down; the exact opposite - im demonstrating that it isnt reasonable to break it down by showing the impractical numbers and measurements that would be involved. For practical purposes the potential values of hormone level are continuous, not discrete, and therefore the factors can be a spectrum. Hormone levels are not the only continuous factor, but were the first example I chose. Other measurable factors that she mentions in the first half which are continuous, not discrete, include neotony of the face (assuming it can be quantified at all), height, hand size, and muscle mass.


it fits for the vast majority of cases, and this is merely a heuristic anyways, so it should be pragmatic.

"It fits a lot of cases therefore it works fine" (to paraphrase) is to me a very weak argument, verging on a non-argument. She says herself that she hasnt delineated the edge cases (or made any argument as to what proportion of the whole they make up). She made no reference to the difficulty faced in discussing those edge cases or difficulty faced by those who fall within the edge cases, or the ease of discussing common cases, which makes it impossible to weigh up against the "ease of use" argument.

As you say: It should be pragmatic, and she is saying that it is pragmatic. Pragmatism is the consideration of things based on practical consequences, and no time was spent giving any explanation, quantification, or analysis of the practical consequences. Both in terms of how "fine" it works for common cases, or in how significant the negative consequences in the edge cases are. The conclusion that it works fine was a blatant assertion with no relation to the rest of the video. Im not arguing the reverse, that its not fine, but I am saying that no argument was made one way or the other.

At this stage, the pragmatism or not of calling it "fine" comes under Hitchens' famous maxim. It was asserted without evidence and could be dismissed without evidence.
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Online Andrew Clunn

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Re: Sex as binary or spectrum
« Reply #4 on: May 05, 2017, 02:20:58 AM »
Her: "If spectrum means X in this context it doesn't apply."

You: "X is not the definition of spectrum."

You didn't refute the argument about X.  The use of spectrum was always as an analogy by all involved.  You're doing little more than arguing semantics there.  I'm breaking this up from the response regarding categorization because that's a real discussion worth having, but the spectrum semantics is rubbish.
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Re: Sex as binary or spectrum
« Reply #5 on: May 05, 2017, 02:27:23 AM »
A discrete set of criteria is different from a discrete set of values.  BMI is a function of height and weight.  There are incalculable numbers of various heights and weights if we go down to a small enough scale, but there are only two factors that then result in a single BMI.  The conflation of discrete factors with discrete measurements of those factors is to miss her point.
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Re: Sex as binary or spectrum
« Reply #6 on: May 05, 2017, 02:41:19 AM »
As to the cultural means of appraising sex, this was not covered in this video.  She has touched on it before, but given the now focused form for this video series, I imagine it will be its own topic.

The case that binary categorization can work and does cover the vast majority of cases is an easy one to make, but clearly wasn't the point of this video.  This video had two points:

Showing that the shape of the distribution of traits lends itself to two peaks, where most people cluster due to primary and secondary sexual characteristics correlating along two groups.

Showing how any simplistic reduction of sexual categorization by a single trait or end result required seemingly arbitrary and numerous new sexual categories with little representation in the data set.

Thus the binary categorization is pragmatic from a statistical modelling perspective.  That it's also pragmatic from a societal perspective was alluded to, but not supported.  Again, I would say that this is simply due to the limited scope of this video (and being the first in the series).  The other points still stand.
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Offline Caffiene

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Re: Sex as binary or spectrum
« Reply #7 on: May 05, 2017, 04:01:02 AM »
Her: "If spectrum means X in this context it doesn't apply."

Youre going to need to provide a citation.

The only part I can find similar to this is where she talks about getting away from human perception. Something like emission spectra are exactly the type of objective, light-frequency based measurements shes talking about, and still dont match the definition she asserts.

The use of spectrum was always as an analogy by all involved.

Youre going to need to support that a lot more strongly.

 The title of the video, and title of this thread, specifically say "Is Sex a spectrum?" and "Sex as Binary or Spectrum", and the starting point of the video is Bill Nye saying that sex is a spectrum. Now youre claiming that the word spectrum is only an analogy of something that is opposed to the binary?

Bill Nye is clearly not talking in analogy, he is using the standard, common definition of the word meaning a range of related elements with some overlapping characteristics. See definition 2 here.  He is saying "sex has a number of related and overlapping characteristics which can be measured on a continuum". As the video is presented as a refutation or discussion of Bill's comment, if she is using spectrum as an analogy then she has failed to address Nye's comment, as well as used an exceedingly unclear analogy. What is she using the word spectrum as an analogy for?

Not to mention the general use of "sex is a spectrum" is also not used as analogy, rather it is used in the same sense Nye uses it, so if shes only speaking in analogy shes just speaking to a strawman. In discussing spectrum only as analogy, she would be discussing something that nobody says.


A discrete set of criteria is different from a discrete set of values.  BMI is a function of height and weight.  There are incalculable numbers of various heights and weights if we go down to a small enough scale, but there are only two factors that then result in a single BMI.  The conflation of discrete factors with discrete measurements of those factors is to miss her point.

I disagree. I believe she misspoke in conflating discrete factors with discrete measurements. She does say discrete factors, but then immediately says it "would rule out the possibility of sex being a true continuum". Discrete measurements rule out the possibility of a continuum of classification, but have nothing to do with the number of factors under consideration. If she meant to say discrete factors, then her point is a non-sequitur. That would be akin to saying "Height has only one measurable factor, therefore height doesnt exist on a continuum".


As to the cultural means of appraising sex, this was not covered in this video.  She has touched on it before, but given the now focused form for this video series, I imagine it will be its own topic.

I agree and that was partly my point. She presented a conclusion that was at least partly related to content she hasnt yet presented. It is, as yet, an unsupported conclusion.

Quote
Showing that the shape of the distribution of traits lends itself to two peaks, where most people cluster due to primary and secondary sexual characteristics correlating along two groups.

I disagree. The video did not make any argument regarding the actual shape of the distribution, or any argument regarding where "most" people cluster. It took as a given that if we arranged people in a distribution it would look like the graph presented.

For the sake of argument or example, I was happy to go along with the idea that people would generally be distributed around two local maximums and look something very roughly like the graph. But when we get to the idea of "most" or conclusions based on the shape of the graph, thats completely unsupported territory. We dont know how much of an overlap there is between the two groups. We dont know the mean clusters, the deviation from the norm, whether the two peaks are similar in size and deviation, or any statistically relevant information to make that assessment.

We dont have even have a rough approximation of a distribution function, to determine how primary and secondary factors are weighted against each other. If we were to make a distribution somehow, it could just as easily come out something like this:



There are still two peaks, but its not as easy to simply classify the graph into two obvious categories or how many people in the middle count as one side or the other, or fit in neither classification.

Depending on the weighting function used to distill the primary and secondary characteristics down to a single data point, you could have a huge variety of statistical distributions. The only non-controversial method of weighting a distribution function in a way that would approximate the example graph is to base it off a weighting of factors that assumes the binary classification and weights factors with more overlap as less important - which is circular reasoning.

The binary classification is not pragmatic from a statistical modelling perspective because creating a statistical model is not pragmatic.
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Re: Sex as binary or spectrum
« Reply #8 on: May 05, 2017, 07:59:14 AM »
The fact is, no matter how atypical, transgender people, people who are clearly not well defined by one gender or another, exist.  And we need a social, legal and biological framework to deal with that reality.  In any other area of science, the clear demonstrations of exceptions to a rule or framework means that framework is wrong.  Regardless of whether it makes us feel more comfortable, or if it applies to most people, the fact of transgender people existing proves that the gender binary is wrong, or at very least, the binary is an incomplete theory of sex and gender.
« Last Edit: May 05, 2017, 08:01:46 AM by superdave »

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Re: Sex as binary or spectrum
« Reply #9 on: May 05, 2017, 08:25:57 AM »
A distribution does not have to be uniform to represent a spectrum; indeed, the frequency of blackbody radiation (which we seem to be taken as the archetypical spectrum) is not uniformly distributed.  We talk about all sorts of natural phenomena existing on a spectrum even though they're normally distributed.  And there are things, like human height, that are bi-modally distributed due to sexual dimorphism and which we don't therefore declare to be binary; we still recognize that human height exists on a continuum from less than two feet to nearly nine feet.  And we don't try to declare outliers to be "man height" or "woman height" just because it accounts for "most people."  I really don't get this argument at all.
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Re: Sex as binary or spectrum
« Reply #10 on: May 05, 2017, 01:59:00 PM »
The fact is, no matter how atypical, transgender people, people who are clearly not well defined by one gender or another, exist.  And we need a social, legal and biological framework to deal with that reality.  In any other area of science, the clear demonstrations of exceptions to a rule or framework means that framework is wrong.  Regardless of whether it makes us feel more comfortable, or if it applies to most people, the fact of transgender people existing proves that the gender binary is wrong, or at very least, the binary is an incomplete theory of sex and gender.

What hogwash.  Lots to respond to from other people, but the duckbill platypus does not make the category of "bird" obsolete.  Sometimes the exceptions are of such small number that they can very easily be viewed and explained best as exceptions rather than as equal or distinct categories.  Transgender people have no such claim by virtue of their existence.  That does not mean that such categorizations should not exist, but that your "logic" here is more "feels" than "reals."
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Re: Sex as binary or spectrum
« Reply #11 on: May 05, 2017, 02:01:33 PM »
Caffiene, I tried to respond to each of the different segments of our disagreements in separate posts to avoid the large quote block chain.  Collapsing it all back into a single post really defeats that purpose.  We're disagreeing on several different points here.  I would prefer that we keep them distinct for clarity rather than having them all bleed into each other, when the points of contention are not the same.  Is that acceptable?

EDIT -

This is not an intentional meta joke about the ease of separating distinct categories for clarity.  I only saw that possible (and unintentional) connection after the fact.
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Online Andrew Clunn

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Re: Sex as binary or spectrum
« Reply #12 on: May 05, 2017, 02:11:59 PM »
A distribution does not have to be uniform to represent a spectrum; indeed, the frequency of blackbody radiation (which we seem to be taken as the archetypical spectrum) is not uniformly distributed.  We talk about all sorts of natural phenomena existing on a spectrum even though they're normally distributed.  And there are things, like human height, that are bi-modally distributed due to sexual dimorphism and which we don't therefore declare to be binary; we still recognize that human height exists on a continuum from less than two feet to nearly nine feet.  And we don't try to declare outliers to be "man height" or "woman height" just because it accounts for "most people."  I really don't get this argument at all.

Well to be clear, a "spectrum" is still a single axis scale.  Once you start plotting data along two or more axis the notion of a spectrum no longer applies, and that's what Bill Nye (and anyone who argues for sexual identities defined by characteristics related to something other than male or female) do.  So their use of the term "spectrum" is entirely invalid if we take it to mean anything other than a loose colloquial analogy.  That's why the semantic debate here is so pointless.  No her use of spectrum isn't scientific, but neither was its use by others when they purported to be advocating for science, so accept that the semantic argument is just a black hole of futility and move on.
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Re: Sex as binary or spectrum
« Reply #13 on: May 05, 2017, 02:49:43 PM »
The fact is, no matter how atypical, transgender people, people who are clearly not well defined by one gender or another, exist.  And we need a social, legal and biological framework to deal with that reality.  In any other area of science, the clear demonstrations of exceptions to a rule or framework means that framework is wrong.  Regardless of whether it makes us feel more comfortable, or if it applies to most people, the fact of transgender people existing proves that the gender binary is wrong, or at very least, the binary is an incomplete theory of sex and gender.

What hogwash.  Lots to respond to from other people, but the duckbill platypus does not make the category of "bird" obsolete.  Sometimes the exceptions are of such small number that they can very easily be viewed and explained best as exceptions rather than as equal or distinct categories.  Transgender people have no such claim by virtue of their existence.  That does not mean that such categorizations should not exist, but that your "logic" here is more "feels" than "reals."

Your analogy doesn't work.  I am not saying there is no such thing as male or female, just that we need an expanded definition of gender that moves past binary, just as the platypus helped expand notions about evolution and speciation.  I don't argue that male and female are not still useful concepts.  It's like how relativity is an expansion of Newtonian mechanics.  Newton's notions were proven wrong, but they were still useful approximations. 
« Last Edit: May 05, 2017, 02:52:13 PM by superdave »

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Re: Sex as binary or spectrum
« Reply #14 on: May 05, 2017, 03:00:46 PM »
so accept that the semantic argument is just a black hole of futility and move on.

No.  See how well discussions go when you tell other people what to think and do?
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