Does General Intelligence Deflate Standardized Effect Sizes of Cognitive Sex Differences?

Marco del Guidice1 points out2 that in the presence of measurement error, standardized effect size measures like Cohen's d will underestimate the "true" effect size.

The effect size d tries to quantify the difference between two distributions by reporting the difference between the distributions' means in standardized units—units that have been scaled to take into account how "spread out" the data is. This gives us a common reference scale for how big a given statistical difference is. Height is measured in meters, and "Agreeableness" in the Big Five personality model is an abstract construct that doesn't even have natural units, and yet there's still a meaningful sense in which we can say that the sex difference in height (d≈1.7) is "about three times larger" than the sex difference in Agreeableness (d≈0.5).3

Cohen's d is computed as the difference in group means, divided by the square root of the pooled variance. Thus, holding actual sex differences constant, more measurement error means more variance, which means smaller values of d. Here's some toy Python code illustrating this effect:4

from math import sqrt
from statistics import mean, variance

from numpy.random import normal, seed

# seed the random number generator for reproducibility of figures in later
# comments; commment this out to run a new experiment
seed(1)  #

def cohens_d(X, Y):
    return (
        (mean(X) - mean(Y)) /
            (len(X)*variance(X) + len(Y)*variance(Y)) /
            (len(X) + len(Y))

def population_with_error(μ, ε, n):
    def trait():
        return normal(μ, 1)
    def measurement_error():
        return normal(0, ε)
    return [trait() + measurement_error() for _ in range(n)]

# trait differs by 1 standard deviation
true_f = population_with_error(1, 0, 10000)
true_m = population_with_error(0, 0, 10000)

# as above, but with 0.5 standard units measurment error
measured_f = population_with_error(1, 0.5, 10000)
measured_m = population_with_error(0, 0.5, 10000)

true_d = cohens_d(true_f, true_m)
print(true_d)  # 1.0069180384313943 — d≈1.0, as expected!

naïve_d = cohens_d(measured_f, measured_m)
print(naïve_d)  # 0.9012430127962895 — deflated!

But doesn't a similar argument hold for non-error sources of variance that are "orthogonal" to the group difference? Suppose performance on some particular cognitive task can be modeled as the sum of the general intelligence factor (zero or negligible sex difference), and a special ability factor that does show sex differences.5 Then, even with zero measurement error, d would underestimate the difference between women and men of the same general intelligence

def performance(μ_g, σ_g, s, n):
    def general_ability():
        return normal(μ_g, σ_g)
    def special_ability():
        return normal(s, 1)
    return [general_ability() + special_ability() for _ in range(n)]

# ♀ one standard deviation better than ♂ at the special factor
population_f = performance(0, 1, 1, 10000)
population_m = performance(0, 1, 0, 10000)

# ... but suppose we control/match for general intelligence
matched_f = performance(0, 0, 1, 10000)
matched_m = performance(0, 0, 0, 10000)

population_d = cohens_d(population_f, population_m)
print(population_d)  # 0.7413662423265308 — deflated!

matched_d = cohens_d(matched_f, matched_m)
print(matched_d)  # 1.0346898918452228 — as you would expect


  1. I was telling friend of the blog Tailcalled the other week that we really need to start a Marco del Guidice Fan Club!
  2. Marco del Guidice, "Measuring Sex Differences and Similarities", §2.3.3, "Measurement Error and Other Artifacts"
  3. Yanna J. Weisberg, Colin G. DeYoung, and Jacob B. Hirsh, "Gender Differences in Personality across the Ten Aspects of the Big Five", Table 2
  4. Special thanks to Tailcalled for catching a bug in the initially published version of this code.
  5. Arthur Jensen, The g Factor, Chapter 13: "Although no evidence was found for sex differences in the mean level of g or in the variability of g, there is clear evidence of marked sex differences in group factors and in test specificity. Males, on average, excel on some factors; females on others. [...] But the best available evidence fails to show a sex difference in g."

"A Love That Is Out of Anyone's Control"

(Attention conservation notice: Diary-like navel-gazing today. If you're here for the Actual Philosophy, come back the week after next.)

ROSE: [...] we can't both exist. I'm going to become half of you. And I need you to know that every moment you love being yourself, that's me, loving you, and loving being you.

Steven Universe, "Lion 3: Straight to Video"

I cosplayed Rose Quartz on Saturday at FanimeCon the other month! (Okay, it was May. I'm not a very productive writer.) It was fun, I think! I guess?

I'm not really sure what other people get out of fandom conventions. There are panels, but pop-culture analysis is better in blog form than live discussion. There are autographs, but there are only so many celebrities I want to pay forty dollars in order to meet for forty seconds. There's the vendor hall, but I don't need more useless material possessions: my life is about bits, not atoms.

For me, it's my one socially-acceptable excuse for crossdressing in public.

... well, that's not quite right; "socially-acceptable" isn't the concept I want. I live in goddamned "Portland". (Which is actually Berkeley, but when I started my pseudonymous gender blog, I took my savvy friends' cowardly and paranoid advice to obfuscate even my location, and now I have to keep saying "'Portland'" for backwards compatibility, even though at this point my bad opsec is more akin to a genre convention or a running joke, rather than a real attempt to conceal my identity.) Everyone and her dog has trans friends here. My new young male coworker just staight-up wears a dress and makeup some days, and no one bats an eye. (My attempt to "Blanchpill" him was ... uneventful.)

So if I don't need to fear getting beaten up or even menacing stares, why do I need conventions to dress up? Could part of it be that I'm too old? The fact that I wouldn't be caught dead wearing a dress to work (!!) probably has something to do with my sense of propriety being calibrated to the world of 'aught-six, in contrast to my coworker, who I guess would have come of age in the Obergefell- and Jenner-era world of 'fifteen. For all that this blog is about resisting pro-gender-variance social pressure in the life of the mind, I should at least endeavor to notice when I succumb to anti-gender-variance social pressure in real life.

I think another part of it is an intuition about—how do I put this? Not wanting to commit fraud?—or not wanting to commit obvious fraud. The reason I'm so glad that there's a word for the thing that isn't "crossdresser" or "transvestite" is because it's not about the clothes; it's about wanting to actually have the body of the other sex. The clothes are just a prop. And the prop ... noticeably doesn't work. I don't pass; I have never passed. My voice is wrong; my skeleton is wrong; my movement is wrong; my face continues to be wrong despite makeup. At least at Fanime (where everyone and her dog is in costume) there's no pretense that the pretense is anything more than that. If you fool someone—if only for a moment—then great, but if not, then at least you're not fooling anyone about whether you're fooling yourself.

I'm probably just bad at crossdressing/cosplay? I've never put the kind of effort into, say, a makeup tutorial the way I do for my intellectual endeavors. My Fanime costume was authored by the Amazon product recommendation algorithm: after adding the pink wig to my shopping cart, the "Discover Related Products" sidebar picked out the hoop skirt and the Mr. Universe tee from Episode 48 "Story for Steven". (The sword in the photo illustrating this post is borrowed from another cosplayer cropped out-of-frame.) And unless I become more skilled, I feel like I've hit diminishing returns on conventions—like whatever I was going to get out the experience, I would have gotten either this time or one of the last six (previously: as Ens. Silvia Tilly at San Francisco Comic-Con 2018, as Equestria Girls Twilight Sparkle at BABSCon 2018, as Korra at San Francisco Comic-Con 2017, as Pearl at FanimeCon 2017, as Lt. Jadzia Dax (circa 2369) at the Star Trek 50 Year Mission Tour San Francisco 2016, as Pearl as San Francsico Comic-Con 2016).

As far as other special events go, I'm flying out to Portland—the real Portland—tonight for a tech conference, and to visit friend of the blog Sophia. You'd think a few days of vacation should do me good—I've been an psychological wreck all year (I mean, even more than my average year) over having accidentally catalyzed a civil war in my local robot cult—except that the same cultural forces that have subtly-yet-fatally corrupted my beautiful robot cult, just own the open-source tech scene outright, which is likely to present a source of additional stress. The spirit of bravery that sings, I will fight for the place where I'm free—for the world I was made in, must subsist in a brain wracked by constant emotional pain that—sometimes—is just tired of fighting.

The Social Construction of Reality and the Sheer Goddamned Pointlessness of Reason

The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

"Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush" by Ron Suskind, The New York Times Magazine

Truth isn't real; there are only competing narratives.

Okay, that probably isn't literally true. There probably really are quarks and leptons and an objective speed of light in a vacuum. But most people don't actually spend much of their lives interacting with reality at a level that requires scientific understanding. Maintaining the wonders of our technological civilization only requires that a few specialists understand some very narrow fragment of the true structure of the world beneath the world—and even they don't have to take it home with them. For most people all of the time, and all people most of the time, basic folk physics is enough to keep us from dropping too many plates. Everything else we think we believe is shaped by the narratives we tell each other, whose relationship to testable predictions about the real world is far too complicated for a lone human to empirically check—or even notice how such a check might fail.

And so sufficiently-widely-believed lies bootstrap themselves into being true. You might protest, "But, but, the map is not the territory! Believing doesn't make it so!" But if almost everyone accepts a narrative and sort of behaves as if it were true, then that does (trivially) change the part of reality that consists of people's social behavior—which is the only part that matters outside of someone's dreary specialist duties writing code or mixing chemicals.

If people are quantitatively less likely to do business with people who emit heresy-signals (even subtle ones, like being insufficiently enthusiastic while praising God), then believing in God really is a good financial decision, which is a successful prediction that legitimately supports the "Divine Providence financially rewards the faithful" hypothesis. With sufficient mental discipline, the occasional freethinker might be able to entertain alternative hypotheses ("Well, maybe Divine Providence isn't really financially rewarding believers, and it just looks that way because of these-and-such social incentive gradients"), but given the empirical adequacy of the orthodox view, it would take a level of sheer stubborn contrarianism that isn't particularly going to correlate with being a careful thinker.

Smart people in the dominant coalition have always been very good at maintaining frame control. I don't know exactly what forms this has taken historically, back when religious authorities held sway. In my secularized world which is at least nominally managed under the auspices of Reason, the preferred tactic is clever motte-and-bailey language-mindfuckery games, justified by utilitarianism: speak in a way that reinforces the coalitional narrative when interpreted naïvely, but which also permits a sophisticated-but-contrived interpretation that can never, ever be proven false, because we can define a word any way we want.

Thus, trans women are women, where by 'women' I mean people who identify as women. Appeals to conceptual parsimony ("Yes, you could use language that way, but that makes it more expensive to express these-and-such useful real-world probabilistic inferences—") don't work on utilitarians who explicitly reject parsimony in favor of "utility," where utility is estimated by back-of-the-envelope calculations that seem like they ought to be better than nothing, but which in practice have so many degrees of freedom that the answer is almost entirely determined by the perceived need to appease whichever utility monster has made itself most politically salient to the one performing the calculation.

If you can't win the argument (because the motte is genuinely a great motte) and therefore gain status by appealing to reality, and our minds are better at tracking status than reality, then eventually dissidents either accept the narrative or destroy themselves.

Autogynephilic males are better at large-scale coalitional politics than actual lesbians for basically the same reasons that men-in-general are better at coalitional politics than women-in-general (as evidenced by the patriarchy), so once a political conflict arose between an intransigent minority of AGPs' right to choose their "gender", and women's/lesbians' right to have a goddamned word to describe themselves, it was a fait accompli that the group sampled from the male region in psychological configuration space would win: male psychology is designed to win costly intergroup conflicts. And in winning, they create their own reality.

Again, probably not literally: there probably really are biochemical facts of the matter as to what traits hormone replacement therapy does and does not change, and the biochemical facts aren't going to vary depending on the outcome of a political conflict—as far as I know. (I've never seen an estrogen molecule, have you?)

What does vary depending on the outcome of a political conflict are which facts you can talk about—and thus, in the long run, which facts you can even notice. If you successfully mindfuck everyone into believing that AGPs are really women, then they really are.

Once, in the hateful and bigoted days of our ancestors, people noticed whether babies were female or male, acculturated them into different social roles (childbearing and war being more relevant to their cultural systems then that of today's barren, pacified elites), and had short, simple words for the resulting clusters in personspace: girls and boys, women and men.

But the ancestors, in choosing the words to carve their reality at the joints, didn't distinguish between the fact of sex, and social sex roles—from within a given Society, there was no reason to make that distinction. For a brief, beautiful moment in the West, second-wave feminism's push to make Society more congenial to masculine-of-center women provided a reason, giving us the sex/gender distinction.

That incentive lasted about forty years. After its crowning victory in Obergefell v. Hodges, the Blue Egregore's LGBT activist machinery wasn't about to sit idle or quietly disband, so instead adapted itself to the obvious next growth channel of absorbing new neurotype-demographics into the "T": specifically, capturing a larger fraction of the ~5% (?) of men with intense AGP (whose analogues in a previous generation would have been furtive, closeted crossdressers), and the ~5% (?) of girls on the losing end of female intrasexual competition (whose analogues in a previous generation would have been anorexic).

Sculpting "trans" into an interest group large enough to serve as a pawn (well, bishop) under the Blue Egregore's control required the LGBT sub-egregore to re-collapse the sex/gender distinction (pried apart at such painstaking cost by its feminist cousins two generations earlier)—in the other direction: sex, having already been split into "sex" and "gender" (f.k.a. gender roles f.k.a. sex roles), must now give way entirely to the latter. In Hoffman and Taylor's account of the precession of simulacra (following Baudrillard), medical transsexualism of the 20th-century West was a mixture of simulacrum levels 1 (to the extent that hormones and surgery constitute a successful sex change) and 2 (to the extent that they don't, and transitioning consists of lying about one's sex).

In contrast, post-Obergefell gender theory belongs to simulacrum level 3: rather than having a non-circular truth condition, "gender" is just a free-floating Schelling point, a role or costume to be symbolically identified with, meaning no more (and no less) what one can predict that others will predict that others will predict ... &c. that it means. Biological sex would continue to be a decision-relevant variable if it were cognitively available (summarizing a variety of physical differences, who can get pregnant, various game-theoretic social consequences of who can get pregnant, personality differences to the tune of Mahanalobis D ≈ 2.7, &c.)—but no culture can provide all the concepts that would be decision-relevant if available. Definitionally, you don't know what you're missing. "The limits of my language are the limits of my world." Some claim to have seen through to a world beneath the world, but without a way to share what they've allegedly seen, to bring it within mutually-reinforcing consensus of the intersubjective, who's not to say that they only dreamed it?

I have a recurring dream, a naïve dream that can't exist. It's a dream about the use of maps. In my dream, even people who—for example—dislike psychological sex differences, have an interest in sex differences research being as accurate as possible, using the most precise concepts possible, because only a true understanding of the interplay between nature and nurture can be used to design a more just Society that minimizes inequality, just as only a true map of the territory can help you plot your way across a dangerous terrain. And that is how it would work for a singleton God-Empress that could arrange human lives like pieces on a chess board, or the words in a novel.

But humans don't use maps to navigate the territory. Humans live in the map. Researching sex differences can only make them more salient in your culture. Researching how to turn men into women could only draw attention to all the dimensions along which we don't know how to do the job. If you don't like what you see, then remove your eyes. I dream of things being otherwise—if only people knew about the forces constructing their experience, if only they knew about the empires competing to comprise them, maybe we could negotiate our way to the good outcome (whatever that turns out to be) without the mindfucking?

But that's not how things sort out. So I, lacking both the power to act and the humility to unsee, am left to just study it. Judiciously. As I do.

The Source of Our Power

"I really don't think you're rationally considering how to maximize your contribution to rationality pedagogy and deciding it runs through freaking out about transgender and maybe abandoning the movement in disgust."

"Almost no one's optimal contribution to rationality pedagogy runs through freaking out about transgender; I just think it's plausible that mine does. It is written that power comes from having Something to Protect: the Sequences were distilled out of Eliezer Yudkowsky's attempt to think carefully about how to build a superintelligence; the classic Slate Star Codex posts on argumentative charity were born out of Scott Alexander's trauma after accidentally running afoul of social-justice activists.

"If Eliezer had started out trying to write about human rationality, if Scott had started out trying to write about discourse norms, it wouldn't have worked. The Art must have a purpose other than itself, or it collapses into infinite recursion."


The Scintillating But Ultimately Untrue Thought is going on hiatus until 1 July while the author recovers from a broken heart and a shattered faith in humanity; there will be no new posts in May and June. But don't touch that subscription—we'll be back in two months with more of your favorite social commentary, philosophical disquisitions, and gooey self-disclosure! In the meantime, maybe read a paper book?

Link: "Where to Draw the Boundaries?"

It doesn't have anything to do with the topic focuses of this blog, but this new post on Less Wrong about the mathematical laws governing how to talk about dolphins is just so good that I have to share it with my readers! I hope to read more from that author in the future!—it would be really unfortunate if his writing productivity and mine turned out to be negatively correlated for some inexplicable reason.

Interlude XVIII

"You don't understand. Sure, you might make a few interesting abstract points here and there, but this isn't some masturbatory ivory-tower intellectual game to us. We're fighting for our existence here."

"Yes, you are. And so am I. I need simple language that carves reality at the joints in order to achieve the map that reflects the territory. If I had the choice, I'd prefer not to be complicit with the forces that oppress you—if only you weren't complicit with the forces that oppose me."

Use It or Lose It

It's been remarked upon that popular positions are often supported with weak arguments, because people aren't in the habit of having to defend them. I think there's a distinct but related time-dependent effect on advocates of sufficiently unpopular positions. At first, the advocate of the unpopular position grows more sophisticated over time as they refine and elaborate their case against the orthodoxy—until they eventually notice that arguing doesn't work, at which point their argument quality undergoes a sharp and sudden decline: if there's literally no way you can win (because advocates of the orthodoxy are just going to confabulate a series of ever more ridiculous bullshit objections to waste your time), why bother putting in all that effort?

If "Because while you can select a sample from a different multivariate distribution to match a sample from another distribution along one or a few given dimensions, the samples are going to differ in the variables that you didn't select" is just going to be ignored anyway, the temptation to flip a table and just say "Because fuck you, that's why" may become nigh overwhelming.

Interlude XVI

"But like, maybe a better strategy than pretending not to notice that women are a different thing that I don't understand, might be to try to listen to them, and learn from them, and appropriate the good parts of what they have without literally insisting that we're instances of the same thing, which is, unfortunately, not true. Or even—why am I even saying 'unfortunately'? It was already not true before I picked up my teenage religion."

"I don't see what's morally threatening about women being a different thing, because/as-long-as woman-cluster-humans still have the same amount of personhood as man-cluster-humans. If that weren't true then that would be morally threatening, but that's not something you've brought up so far."

"It's not morally threatening to you!"

The Dialectic

Growing up as a younger child in an atomized, low-fertility WEIRD world, I was until recently in the historically anomalous position of not really having any idea what children are actually like. (I have some memories of childhood, of course, but that's not the same as field observations with an adult intellect—everything from before age 14 or so feels insufficiently continuous with my current self to really constitute knowledge in my possession.)

It's not clear to what extent people really have anticipation-controlling beliefs in the absence of lived-experience data, but the narratives we think we believe come from what we read.

One such narrative relevant to the topic-focus of this blog is the progressive mainstay, "Psychological sex differences are fake/socially-constructed." A metacontrarian counternarrative that I got a lot of exposure to as I sought out ideologically-inconvenient science during my twenties was, "Overeducated out-of-touch liberals think that psychological sex differences are fake/socially-constructed, until they finally have children of their own and see for themselves how much is innate." As I slowly came to grips with just how deeply the progressive coalition has been systematically lying to me about everything I want and value, I grew to mostly accept the counternarrative.

And so as I've recently gotten some field data thanks to some of my friends actually having children (!!) in the past few years, it has been a pleasant surprise to notice the metacontrarian counternarrative making failed predictions in the form of my friends' kids' individual personalities not being overtly stereotypical: friend's daughter's (age 3) fantasy doll play frequently revolves around epic battles of good guys vs. bad guys (with the bad guys regularly being killed or put in jail); other friend's son (age 2) is the subject of adorable anecdotes about wanting to hug and not hurt people, and his current special interest is endlessly rewatching the documentary Babies. The glorious Hydeian counter-counternarrative is confirmed: maybe some sex differences are real, but the effect sizes are so small that you really should just treat everyone as individuals, not out of ideological commitments, but because it actually makes sense!! Rah! ⚥ 💖

On the other hand, if I'm remembering my Maccoby (RIP 😢) correctly, a lot of the standard social-play differences emerge a little bit after toddlerhood. So I'm bracing myself for the possibility of a dreary counter-counter-counternarrative in a few years.

Untitled Metablogging, 26 December 2018

(Attention conservation notice: metablogging is boring. This post previews some planned and in-development content and expounds on the author's psychological state. It is only being published for psychological reasons. Please subscribe for finished, high-quality content later!)

Um, merry belated Christmas to readers of The Scintillating But Ultimately Untrue Thought?

I guess I haven't made any new posts here in almost two months?—which is not great. It would make sense for a blog to not update in two months if the author really just didn't have anything to say worth reading during that time. But I still have lots of things I want to say here, that I've wanted to say for a long time, even, that I just somehow haven't gotten around to writing up ... even though the blog is more than two years old, and I didn't even have a dayjob for twelve months of that. "Writer's block" doesn't even begin to cover this; it is criminal. Here's just a partial list of some of the post ideas that I haven't gotten around to finishing for you yet—

  • I still need to finish drafting my reply to Ozy's reply to my reply to the immortal Scott Alexander
    • I've got ~4800 words drafted, but it needs a lot more work in order to make it a maximally clear and maximally defensible blog post
    • A brief (only ~350 words) summary—
      • I hopefully-accurately summarize Ozy as trying to make a reductio ad absurdum argument, claiming that my arguments relying on the relevance of psychological sex differences would imply that lesbians aren't women, which is absurd.
        • I argue that this is a misunderstanding of my position: I don't want to define "gender" based on psychology. Rather, I want language to talk about the natural category of biological sex, which makes predictions about many possible observations, a few of which predictions are effectively binary (like reproductive systems and chromosomes), but many of which are merely statistical. The existence of women (in the sense of people with uteruses and XX chromosomes, &c.) who are more masculine than the modal woman among many psychological dimensions, does not refute the claim that gender-dysphoric men can't simply be defined as women without consequences.
      • I hopefully-accurately summarize Ozy as arguing that many sex-based social distinctions should actually be made on the basis of more specific traits, not sex: for example, if you're worried about harassment, you should try to filter against harassers, not men.
        • I argue that this isn't always practical given the far-less-than-perfect information available in many social situations. Since not all traits can be cheaply, precisely, and verifiably measured, sometimes people might want to use (perceived) sex as a proxy, or as a Schelling point for coordination.
      • I hopefully-accurately summarize Ozy as arguing that gender, like money, is socially constructed by collective agreement. It's coherent to argue that gender should be fully consensual, attributed on the basis of self-identity.
        • I argue that just as not all possible money systems are feasible (in particular, you couldn't run an economy in which anyone could arbitrarily declare what they thought other people should categorize as a dollar), not all possible gender systems are feasible. Fully consensual gender sounds like a good idea when you phrase it like that (what kind of monster could possibly be against "consent"??), but doesn't reflect the structure of probabilistic inferences people actually make in the real world when they have some information about people's sex.
  • I need to write an in-depth post about the overlap-along-one-dimension-does-not-imply-overlap-in-the-entire-configuration-space statistical phenomenon (standard diagram) of which I have decided that "univariate fallacy" is a better name than "Lewontin's fallacy" (working title: "High-Dimensional Social Science and the Conjunction of Small Effect Sizes")
  • a technical post about how imperfect measurements are subject to regression to the mean, which (unfortunately! really genuinely unfortunately!) quantitatively weakens the standard reassurance of, "Oh, no one should feel threatened by discussion of group differences, because the statistics obviously don't apply to any one individual"
    • I haven't done any serious math in a while and I'm afraid that learning and explaining the details here could take me many hours
  • a technical post about using naïve Bayes models for sex categorization
  • a post about how I'm nervous about Codes of Conduct in the open-source world being used as an ideological-conformity enforcement mechanism, in contrast to their laudable ostensible purpose of preventing harrassment, &c. (working title: "Codes of Convergence; Or, Smile More")
  • a critical appraisal of the social phenomenon of self-declared non-binary gender identities (working title: "'But I'm Not Quite Sure What That Means': Costs of Nonbinary Gender as a Social Technology")
  • a post about the mechanisms of social change and how there might be a role for a very narrowly-targeted form of political activism where you try to give people more accurate factual information, rather than lobbying for any particular concrete policy (working title: "An Infovist's Advisory; Or, Standing Athwart History Yelling, 'Wait! I Like the Idea, but the Execution Needs Work!'")
  • a post about neglect of probability (working title: "The Neglect of Probability Fallacy; Or, You Do Not Have an Intersex Condition")
  • an in-depth post about my views on what's going on with late-onset MtF (working title: "Blanchard's Dangerous Idea and the Plight of the Lucid Crossdreamer")
    • heretofore I've mostly just been referring people to go read Anne Lawrence (short version, long version) or Kay Brown because it's more efficient to just link to a lit review that's already been done rather than write something new
    • I actually do have a lot of residual uncertainty that I probably haven't made sufficiently clear in my existing writing! It seems absolutely nailed down that the HSTS/early-onset/feminine/androphilic thing is different from my thing, but there's still some room for other major psychological causal factors influencing transition besides AGP in many people
  • a possibly-lightly-fictionalized account of what my autogynephilic fantasy life looks like in detail
    • I'd kind of rather not write in too much detail about such private and distasteful matters on a blog that also has a lot of non-pornographic content that I'm really proud of, but I'm afraid it actually is important for the intellectual project I'm trying to accomplish here. Without the details, it's too easy for someone to say, "Oh, 'autogynephilia'; that's just some bigoted, unfalsifiable theory someone made up because they hate trans women", and I think the details really make it clear why I need this word (or an exact synonym) to describe an important part of my life—and I suspect the lives of a lot of other people, including a lot of people who go on to transition, although that's harder to prove
    • This is the kind of thing that makes me glad I'm still using a pseudonym, even though I feel guilty about the cowardice
      • I mean, it's not a particularly carefully guarded pseudonym in either direction—not at all hard to doxx by someone who actually cares—but since you almost certainly don't care, it does offer a certain amount of "differential visibility", which is probably the smart move to avoid distractions from my real-name life and work
  • book review of Nevada
  • product review of FaceApp (the uniquely best piece of software in the world)
  • product review of the Oculus Go (as a viewing device for, um, certain VR videos)
  • a deniably-allegorical short epistemic horror story about the evolution of squirrels who are friends (working title: "Friendship Practices of the Secret-Sharing Plain Speech Valley Squirrels"—um, trust me)
  • a short love/epistemic-horror story built around a surprisingly-not-that-contrived interpretation of the Steven Universe ending theme as being about autogynephilia (working title: "'Love Like You'"—um, trust me again)
  • a short epistemic horror story (with a magical-realism twist at the end) about a young gender-critical feminist (who is surprisingly knowledgable about evolutionary psychology) who gets wrongfully involuntarily committed after losing a night of sleep and is assigned an MtF roommate in the psych ward
  • and more

... and just, I don't know. I've been pretty upset lately in the way that I've been on-and-off upset for the last two and a half years, where in addition to this creepy and absurd pseudonymous blog that I don't even have the willpower to write at a decent pace (see the above list of things-yet-left-unwritten), I keep getting into arguments with people in real life (or in Discord servers that feel real-life-adjacent) who seem to think that guys like me can literally be women by means of saying so.

And it's just not true. It's just so obviously not true. (Given current technology.)

So, I'm an intellectual. I realize very well that "It's obviously not true" isn't an argument that someone could engage with. So I do make arguments. I try very hard to be careful to explain the empirical claims I'm making and point to evidence, and try to anticipate and disclaim in advance the most probable misinterpretations of what I'm saying, and demonstrate that I understand that words can be used in many ways depending on context, but that I'm trying to use language to point to a particular empirical statistical structure in the world, and that becomes a lot more cumbersome to express if I'm not allowed to use this word with this widely-used definition/extension ...

I'm not perfect. Especially in real-time discussions (text or meatspace), I can often look back and point to things that I said that were wrong, and know that I have sinned: "Oh, that wasn't quite fair of me; oh, that was kind of bravery-debatey of me; oh, I should have more carefully distinguished between those claims."

I'm not perfect, but I think I'm pretty good. Even if I don't agree with someone about the facts—even if I don't agree with someone about what policy trade-offs to make, including policy trade-offs about how to use language—surely, surely we can at least agree on my meta-level point about cognitive costs being part of the policy trade-off about how to use language?

And somehow it doesn't land. It's like talking to a tape recorder that just endlessly repeats, "Ha-ha! I can define a word any way I want! You can't use that concept unless you can provide explicit necessary-and-sufficient conditions to classify a series of ever-more obscure and contrived edge cases!"

Although I do have a couple favorite edge cases of my own. I generally prefer not to involve named individuals in arguments, even public figures: it's unclassy. But having nothing left, I pull out a photograph of Danielle Muscato. "Look," I say. "This is a photograph of a man. You can see it, too, right? Right?"

And they say, "It's possible to be mistaken about cis people's genders, too."

"Yes, I agree with that," I say. "But can you see how I want to treat 'mistaken identification with respect to a truth condition based on the conjunction of genitalia, chromosomes, and hormone levels' as noticeably different-in-kind from 'mistaken identification with respect to the truth condition of because-I-said-so'?"

They don't see it.

And then I really have nothing left.

I want to flip a table and scream, "Stop gaslighting me, you sanctimonious lying bastards!"

But that's not an argument, either. (It would also constitute toxic masculinity.)

I don't know. I'm just venting here because I've been very upset. My venting is certainly not written in the most defensible possible way. (I can at least think of a few things that I've addressed in previous posts that I haven't addressed here, that someone reading only this post could accuse me of neglecting.)

Maybe with more time and more effort I could find exactly the right words to cover every possible caveat and nitpick and finally be able to communicate the thing—

But maybe I just need to relax. Not take it so seriously. Forget about the topic for a few days or a few months. Wash the goddamned dishes, write some goddamned code. Maybe it's not the end of the world if someone is Wrong on the Internet.

Interlude XV

"Can you believe people are calling my blog transphobic?! Me! That's like calling Christina Hoff Sommers an anti-feminist!"

"Um ... you know, that's actually a pretty good analogy. People like Sommers who agree with a one-sentence literal summary of feminism's goals, like 'women and men should have equal rights', but disagree with seemingly every other belief and instrumental strategy connotationally associated with feminism, and who spend a disproportionate amount of time criticizing central examples of feminists, might reasonably be perceived as anti-feminist, even if they're not literally trying to repeal the 19th Amendment. It's possible to meet the category membership criteria of some simple candidate verbal definition, while not actually being part of that cluster in configuration space along most of the dimensions that people care about and want to use the word to refer to."

"Huh. That argument sounds ... familiar."

"Does it."

"Right, so, I'm pro-trans in the same sense that autogynephilic trans women are women."

"No! I mean, not helping your case!"

Laser 9

I had my ninth laser session the other week (out of the ten-session package that I prepaid for), almost a year after my first. (They schedule them out four to six weeks, and I rescheduled a couple of them.) I'm ... pretty underwhelmed by the results so far? My facial hair is nontrivially thinner than it was before (and maybe slightly blonder by attrition)—it's hard to be sure of the magnitude because apparently I'm still the kind of idiot who doesn't bother to take detailed "Before" photos even after explicitly noting this—but there's still a lot of it noticeably there. "Marking my face as male", I want to put it, but maybe that would be a misleading phrasing, because it's not as if people don't reliably, involuntarily infer my sex from my facial structure even at my cleanest-shaven. (And I should remember that things are only going to get worse—despite my beautiful-beautiful ponytail in the back, Trent says my hairline in the front is already a Norwood 3, and it takes all of my strength as an aspiring rationalist just to believe him.)

I'm not sure how typical my results are and why—the marketing literature from the clinic/parlor/salon promises permanent reduction by "up to 90 percent after 6–8 treatments", but up to isn't exactly a probability distribution. Maybe I just have resilient hair; maybe I'm grimacing or grunting too much during the treatment, priming the merciful nurse–technician to hold back on the zapping more than she (invariably she) is supposed to; who knows?

Sticker Prices

(An anecdote of no consequence)

This year at a conference for this open-source scene I've been really into lately, there were pronoun stickers in everyone's conference swag bags ("[...] so we can all help each other get things right. Wear them in solidarity with others too. Help us make [the conference] welcoming and inclusive for all"), including they/them/theirs, ze/zir/zirs (!), and blanks (!!). Leaving aside impersonal philosophical objections for a moment, I want you to consider the mild stress this kind of thing can inflict on people who have some form of gender-related problems but who have chosen some form of mitigation other than transitioning.

Which sticker am I supposed to put on if I am to show solidarity? The he/him/his sticker would be the obvious, straightforward choice. After all, that is, in fact, the third-person pronoun people use for me. But in a context where I'm being offered a choice, I don't want to choose the male option, because that makes it look like I "identify" with my maleness—as if I were cis in the strong sense of having a "gender identity" matching my "assigned" sex, rather than in the weaker sense of being a reactionary coward whose pathological need for a backwards-compatible social identity is preventing her from becoming her best self.

At the same time, I can't wear the she/her/hers sticker. And I think there's a sense in which can't really is a better choice of words than don't want to. It's not that I don't enjoy being refered to as she in a context where that makes sense, like when I'm crossplaying at a fandom convention, or in the Secret Blanchardian Conspiracy Chatroom, or in the ironic last sentence of the preceding paragraph. It's that, in real life, when I'm not playing dress-up and I can't hide my face behind the fog of net, people are going to notice that I'm male and habitually use the English language pronoun for males on such occasions that they need to refer to me in the third person. I could attach a sticker to my badge instructing them otherwise, but only in the same sense that I could tell them that black is white and cats are dogs—that is, probably not with a straight face.

But none of this really matters: if you don't want to wear a sticker, you can just not wear one, with no discernible social consequences. (At least, not this year!)

I did get asked for my pronouns once, the first day, by someone who I think was not yet aware of the stickers—the only time I've been asked for pronouns when I wasn't at an explicitly social-justice-oriented event (like at the local genderqueer support group, or "Introduction to Feminisms" class at the University in Santa Cruz eleven years ago) or literally wearing a dress (in the cosplay repair lounge at Comic-Con).

I had sat at this person's table to listen to them eloquently denounce at length the many ways in which some code they encountered was horribly overcomplicated—which made sense, they explained, because the 40-year-old men who wrote those libraries were all Trump supporters and Nazis and libertarians.

("Oh, that's interesting!", I said, "Do you suppose there's that large of a correlation between political ideology and code quality? With a sufficiently smart linter to operationalize quality, this could be amenable to empirical study ...")

The question came as we introduced ourselves mid-conversation. After I gave my name (as "Mark"), the person said, "What are your pronouns?"

I think I handled it reasonably well?—hemming and stalling for a few seconds before eventually giving he, with a disclaimer that the reason I hesitated was because I don't want to imply that I identify with masculinity—it's complicated. The questioner, sensing my discomfort, made an effort to placate or reassure me: "Sure," the person said, nodding, "That's just what you're using right now; that's cool."

The question was a compliment, really. I don't think they would have asked if I had had a beard. There's no chance of anyone mistaking me for a woman—but maybe the conjunction of my beautiful-beautiful ponytail and my manner and my slight gynecomastia is enough for me to be mistaken for the kind of man (in the sense of adult human male) who thinks he can demand that other people perceive him as a woman or nonbinary person. (I think I'm at least as credibly androgynous as a couple of the guys I saw wearing the they/them/theirs stickers.)

How strange it is—to be seen and unseen at the same time. Seen, because nice smart progressive people know to look for cues of gender variance and accord that with deference and latitude, such that I parse (correctly!) as someone who plausibly has some kind of gender problems, rather than "man who happens to have long hair for whatever stupid but uninteresting reason."

And unseen, because nice smart progressive people don't bother allocating much prior probability to the hypothesis that people who look and talk like them might think that sometimes the Trump supporters and Nazis and libertarians have a goddamned point.

The Information Theory of Passing

(This is a guest post by friend of the blog Sophia!)

I tend to think of passing in terms of bits. If a stranger glances briefly at me as I walk by them on the sidewalk, how many bits of evidence do I expect they obtain for the proposition that I'm a trans woman (or autogynephilic man who's chosen to socially transition—not trying to care about terminology here, and you can do the translation yourself) against the hypothesis that I'm a cis woman? In other words, by how much did log2(P(trans)/P(cis)) increase? (There's a bit of a simplification here because I'm ignoring the rest of the hypothesis space, but if someone has visible breasts and is wearing women's clothing, I'd say it's safe to ignore.)

Of course, the number of bits they get depends on how familiar they are with differences between (AGP) trans women and cis women, and how long they watch me or talk to me. And whether they clock me as trans also depends on their base rate. The correct base rate (prevalence of AGP transsexualism in men) is a political football and I haven't sorted through the studies, but let's call it 0.1% in Portland. Then someone who's well-calibrated will believe me to be more likely trans than not if they get about ten bits of evidence to that effect (because log2(0.1%/99.9%) ≈ 10).

Different pieces of evidence are evident in different interactions, but I put myself at about (assuming a solid minute of study and focusing on the question, and making up numbers terribly):

face structure: 2 bits
voice: 0.5 bits (I'm very proud of this, yes, it's a bitch to train)
height: 0 bits (at 5′7″)
hair: 0.5 bits
clothing: 2 bits (I dress more 20-something than 30-something, which is telling)
posture: 0.5 bits (probably the low-hanging fruit right now)
breasts: 0.5 bits
other body structure (hips, ribs, hands, etc.): 2 bits

total: 8 bits

Some of those aren't quite independent evidence (clothing/hair/posture/body) but even assuming conservatively that they are, people who are trying can get 6–8 bits of evidence with some careful observation. And assuming correct calibrations on base rates, that's not good enough to clock someone. So I feel all right about this.

In reality, of course, the people who will study me that closely are rare and if any strangers have ever clocked me anytime after three months of transition they're super good at hiding it. So, yay?

Notice that this is a very different prospect than "Here's a trans person trying to pass. What evidence can you find that they're trans?" Well, there's lots! Who cares, as long as it's comfortably under 9–10 bits?

Interlude XII

"I can understand why you might think that there are five lights—indeed, that would make a lot of things easier—but actually, there are only four lights. Yes, it's a little bit counterintuitive, and I know I got a little bit frustrated and said some things I now regret when I was trying to explain this earlier, such that some people might justifiably suspect that I am irrationally emotionally-attached to the four-lights hypothesis and guilty of motivated reasoning, and I totally agree that you should definitely take that possibility into account insofar as you are unable to count the lights yourself and are deciding how much you should update based on my report.

"Nevertheless, there are, in fact, four lights. It's OK if you don't believe me, but I counted them, and I recounted them a few more times, and I'm not going to pretend to be confused about the number of lights unless I discover some specific reason to suspect that I miscounted in the same way every time."

Reply to The Unit of Caring on Adult Human Females

Thou shalt not strike terms from others' expressive vocabulary without suitable replacement.


The author of the (highly recommended!) Tumblr blog The Unit of Caring responds to an anonymous correspondent's observation that trans-exclusionary radical feminists tend to define the word woman as "adult human biological female":

Oh, yeah, sorry, I've heard that one too though I've yet to find anyone willing to justify it. If you can find anyone explaining why this is a good definition, or even explaining what good properties it has, I'd appreciate it because I did sincerely put in the effort and—uncharitably, it’s as if there’s just 'matches historical use' and 'doesn’t involve any people I consider icky being in my category'.

I'm happy to try to help if I can!

I would say that a notable good property of the "adult human female" definition is non-circularity: we can articulate membership tests that do a pretty good job of narrowing down which entities do and do not belong to the category we're trying to talk about, without appealing to the category itself. Does the person have a vagina, ovaries, breasts, and two X chromosomes? That's a woman. Has the person given birth? Definitely a woman. Does the person have a penis? Definitely not a woman. This at least gives us a starting point from which we can begin to use this woman concept to make sense of the world, even if it's not immediately clear whether and how we should apply it to various comparatively rare edge-cases. (What about female-to-male transsexuals, a.k.a. trans men? What about people with complete androgen insensitivity syndrome? &c.)

In contrast, a strict gender-identity-based definition doesn't have this useful non-circularity property. If all I know about women is that women are defined as people who identify as women, I can't use that definition to figure out which people are women. This point may be more apparent if you substitute some completely foreign concept for women. If someone told you that zorplebobben are people who identify as zorplebobben, you would probably have questions about what that means! Why do they identify as zorplebobben? Given that someone is a zorplebobben, what else should I infer about them? The self-identity criterion doesn't help: without a base case, the infinite recursion of (people who identify as (people who identify as (people who identify as ...))) never terminates.

Of course, people who believe in the primacy of gender identity aren't trying to engage in circular reasoning. If they are making a philosophical mistake, there has to be some explanation of what makes the mistake appealing enough for so many people to make it.

But it's not hard to guess: there are, empirically, a small-but-not-vanishingly-small minority of people with a penis, XY chromosomes, facial hair, &c. who wish that they had a vagina, XX chromosomes, breasts, &c., and in a enlightened technological civilization, it seems humane to accommodate this desire as much as feasible, by giving people access to hormones and surgeries that approximate the phenotype of the other sex, respecting their chosen pronouns, &c. Thus we can legitimately end up with a non-circular trans-inclusive sense of the word women: "adult human females, and also adult human males who have undergone interventions to resemble adult human females sufficiently closely so that they can be taken as such socially."

But this is a mere broadening of the "adult human female" definition that tacks on extra complexity (partially for humanitarian reasons and partially to better predict social phenomena that most people care more about modeling well than biological minutiæ). The core idea is still intact and centered, such that even if we end up using the disjunctive, trans-inclusive sense a lot of the time, the narrower, trans-exclusive sense is still pretty salient, rather than being a perplexingly unmotivated notion with no good properties.

One might counterargue that this is unjustifiably assuming "biologically female" as a primitive. The author seems to endorse a critique along these lines the first of three objections to the "adult human female" criterion of womanhood—

1) The way we draw categories in biology is a social decision we make for social and cultural reasons, it isn’t a feature of the biology itself. A different sort of society might categorize infertile humans as a separate gender, for example, and that'd be as justified by the biology as our system. Or have 'prepubescent' be a gender, or 'having living offspring' be a gender—there are a million things that these categories could just as reasonably, from the biology, have been drawn around.

I've addressed this class of argument at length (about 6500 words) in a previous post, "The Categories Were Made for Man to Make Predictions", but to summarize briefly, while I agree that categories can be defined in many ways to suit different cultural priorities, it's also the case that not all possible categories are equally useful, because the cognitive function of categories is to group similar things together so that we can make similar predictions about them, and not every possible grouping of entities yields a "tight" distribution of predictions that can be usefully abstracted over.

A free-thinking biologist certainly could choose to reject the orthodoxy of grouping living things by ancestry and reproductive isolation and instead choose to study living things that are yellow, but their treatises would probably be difficult to follow, because "living things that are yellow" is intrinsically a much less cohesive subject matter than, say, "birds": experience with black crows is probably going to be more useful when studying yellow canaries than experience with yellow daffodils—even if, in all philosophical strictness, there are a million things that these categories could have been drawn around, and who can say but that some hypothetical other culture might have chosen color rather than ancestry as the true determinant of "species"?

It is of course true that different cultures will place different emphases and interpretations on various ways in which people can differ: being prepubescent or being a parent might have special significance in some cultures that outsiders could never understand. But to say that prepubescents might as well be a "gender"—well, at this point I must confess that I'm really not sure what this "gender" thing is that the author is trying to talk about.

And I guess that's the problem. People who assume a TERFy definition of woman—like, say, the authors of the Merriam–Webster dictionary ("noun, 1.a., an adult female person")—generally aren't trying to invalidate anyone's "gender"; they're trying to talk about biological sex using simple, universally-understood words. Biological sex is obviously not the only category in the world: in a lot of situations, you might care more about whether someone has living children—or for that matter, whether an organism is yellow—than what sex it is.

But when people do want to talk about sex—when they want to carve reality along that particular joint, without denying that there are superexponentially many others in the vastness of configuration space—there's something profoundly frustrating about Blue Tribe culture's axiomatic insistence that certain inferences must not be made, that certain conceptual distinctions must not be expressible, except perhaps cloaked behind polysyllabic obfuscations like "assigned sex at birth" (as if the doctors made a mistake!).

Even if many usages of words like woman can and should be interpreted in a trans-inclusive sense, it's important that it also be possible to sometimes use the words in a trans-exclusive sense in those cases where the distributions of trans people and cis people of a given "gender" differ significantly for the variables of interest. The point is not to be mean to trans women (who are a huge fraction of my and The Unit of Caring author's friends); the point is that it should be socially acceptable to describe reality using words.

Consider these fictional (but, I fear, distressingly realistic) dialogues—

⁕ ⁕ ⁕

Alice: I think it was terribly unfair how that high school track championship was won by a male-to-female transgender person who wasn't even on hormone replacement therapy!

Bob: I don't see the problem. It's a girl's track meet. Trans girls are girls, by definition. Why shouldn't they be allowed to compete with other girls?

Alice: ...

⁕ ⁕ ⁕

Alice: I'm sad that the sex ratio of my local decision-theory and compiler-development unified meetup group is so horribly lopsided, because this observation is in tension with my beautiful and sacred moral ideal of neither sex having a monopoly on any kind of virtue! If there's anything my native subcultures are doing to needlessly antagonize women, then that's wrong and I want to fix it!

Bob: What are you talking about? There were lots of women at that meetup.

Alice: I mean, yes, but literally all of us were trans.

Bob: So?

Alice: ...

⁕ ⁕ ⁕

Alice: Have you seen Dhejne et al.'s long-term followup study of transsexuals in Sweden? In Tables S1 and S2, the authors report that trans women committed violent crimes at far higher rates than cis women, with an adjusted-for-immigrant-and-psychiatric-status hazard ratio of 18.1—but only slightly lower rates than cis men, against whom the adjusted hazard ratio was 0.8.

Bob: Yes, how terrible that we still live in such a transphobic Society that those poor marginalized trans women are disproportionately driven to violent crime!

Alice: That's one theory. Can you think of any other possible interpretations of the data?

Bob: No.

Alice: Like, what do you make of the observation that the trans women's violent crime rate was not just higher than cis women's, but also strikingly close to that of cis men? Can you think of any reason—any reason at all—why that might not be a coincidence?

Bob: No, that has to be a coincidence. What could trans women and cis men possibly have in common?

Alice: ...

⁕ ⁕ ⁕

(Another dialogue about reproduction belongs in this collection, but was deemed too obvious and has been cut for space.)

⁕ ⁕ ⁕

The point being illustrated here is that if it's socially unacceptable for people who want to talk about sex to say "That's not what I meant by woman in this context and you know it", then people who would prefer not to acknowledge sex will always get the last word, not because they have superior arguments, but because the very terms of discourse have been systematically gamed to conflate dissent with unkindness.

To this it might be objected that trans activists and allies are merely advocating for greater precision, rather than trying to make it socially unacceptable to think about biological sex: after all, you can just say "cis women" (which excludes trans women, trans men, and natal-female nonbinary people) or "assigned female at birth" (which excludes trans women, but includes trans men and natal-female nonbinary people and presumably David Reimer) or "people with uteruses" (which excludes trans women and natal females who have had a hysterectomy) if that's what you really mean.

Alternatively, we could imagine people agreeing that word woman refers solely to social roles and personal identity and must always be used in a trans-inclusive sense, while reserving female for when people want to talk about biological sex. However, I get the sense that this is not a compromise most contemporary trans activists would find acceptable: witness, for example, Zinnia Jones proclaiming that "[t]rans women are female—with female penises, female prostates, female sperm, and female XY chromosomes." (!)

Ultimately, I think all this is underestimating the usefulness of having simple, short descriptions for the categories that do the most predictive work on typical cases.

Kind or not, morally justified or not, voluntary or not, sexual dimorphism is actually a real thing. Studying the pages of Gray's Anatomyor Wikipedia if you're on a budget—you can absorb all sorts of detailed, specific knowledge of the differences between female and male humans, from the obvious (sex organs, vocal pitch, height, muscle mass, body hair) to the less-obvious-but-well-known (chromosomes, hormones, pelvis shape) to the comparatively obscure (blood pressure! lymphocyte concentrations! gray-matter-to-white-matter ratios in the brain!). Nor is this surprising from a theoretical standpoint, where we have theories explaining mechanisms by which sexual dimorphism can evolve and what kinds of differences it produces in different species.

If—like me—you're the kind of person who is not necessarily happy about sexual dimorphism, you can always deliberately define your categories in order to minimize it: if there's a large sex difference in some observable measurement, just say you don't care about predicting that particular measurement.

But people who have other concerns than minimizing Blue Tribe people's quasi-religious discomfort with sexual dimorphism (it's my former quasi-religion, too, so I'm allowed to make fun of us) might want a common word—or even just a particular sense of a common word—to describe the world they see, in which sex is a real thing worth noticing.

It might be worth noticing even if you don't believe in psychological sex differences! That's why generations of feminists have fought valiantly for women's rights on the grounds that women are every bit the moral and intellectual equals of men, rather than the grounds that it's not clear whether "women" actually exist as a non-arbitrary category.

Being limited to just saying "people with uteruses" when the topic of conversation happens to be childbearing (or whatever the approved socially-just construction turns out to be) is not a suitable replacement (per Alicorn's maxim) when the speaker wants to refer to all the other dimensions along which women statistically have things in common, including things that are hard to articulate or measure.

And including things that may not even be currently known. I certainly don't know what differences in gray-to-white brain matter ratios mean psychologically, but my map is not the territory: it doesn't mean some future sufficiently-advanced neuroscience won't be able to say what the difference means about female and male minds, and some sufficiently advanced evolutionary psychology, under what selection pressures it evolved.

Speaking of future advances in knowledge, the author continues to her second objection—

2) Someday people are just going to be able to generate the exact physical body they want to inhabit. At that point, "biological" anything isn't going to apply.

I definitely agree that biological anything isn't going to apply in the glorious posthuman future of unimaginable power and freedom when people can reshape their body and mind at will.

(If we survive.)

But it's also not clear how much relevance this science-fictional scenario has to people in the unglorious preposthuman present. Yes, we do have HRT and SRS, and these are magnificent achievements for the grand cause of morphological freedom, and should be available on an informed-consent basis. It's definitely something.

But it's also definitely not-everything. To get a sense of how far we have to go, I strongly recommend reading Eliezer Yudkowsky's heartbreaking 2009 take on what an actually effective male-to-female sex change would take.

In my youth, I used to be more optimistic about the future of human enhancement. "Oh, sure, that may be true of present-day humans, but in general ..." felt like a relevant and useful form of argument.

These days, dwelling on the general case feels awfully pedantic. I think what changed is that as I read more and gained some personal experience with real-world technology development (albeit in mere software), I began to appreciate technology as the sum of many contingent developments with particular implementation details that someone had to spend thousands of engineer–years pinning down, rather than as an unspecified generic force of everything getting better over time. In principle, everything not directly prohibited by the laws of physics is probably possible, which basically amounts to any miracle you can imagine. In practice, we get a very few, very specific miracles that depend on vast institutions and supply chains and knowledge that can be lost as well as gained.

I don't doubt that the inhabitants of some future world of Total Morphological Freedom won't use the same concepts to describe their blessed lives that we need to navigate our comparatively impoverished existence in which we can't write correct software, aren't sure what basic biological mechanisms even exist, and don't remember how to go the moon or build a subway for less than a billion dollars a mile. But while we work towards a better future (n.b., work towards, not wait for; waiting doesn't help), we have to go on living in a world where our means don't match our ambitions, and—as we typically recognize with respect to other standard transhumanist goals—the difference can't be made up by means of clever redefinitions of words—

⁕ ⁕ ⁕

Alice: When I lost my mother, I knew I could not rest until Death itself is defeated!

Bob: But as long as you remember her, your mother lives on in you!

Alice: I mean, metaphorically yes, but I meant death as in, like, the cessation of all biological functions that sustain a living organism.

Bob: Oh, yeah, sorry, I've heard that one, too, though I've yet to find anyone willing to justify it. If you can find anyone explaining why this is a good definition, or even explaining what good properties it has, I'd appreciate it, because I did sincerely put in the effort and—uncharitably, it's as if there's just 'matches historical use' and 'doesn't involve icky people from the past being in my category'.

Alice: ...

⁕ ⁕ ⁕

The Unit of Caring author continues:

If your definition of a 'woman' is one where trans people will be their preferred gender once the tech catches up, then I think you should probably reflect on what actually changes about anyone's lived experience on that magic day when our cyborgs hit your threshold. And if it isn't, then you're stuck asserting that if a woman is cell-for-cell identical to me then she still might not be a 'biological woman'. That's a sign that this isn't actually about biology.

I would rather say that's a sign that we're facing an instance of the Sorites paradox, the ancient challenge to applying discrete categories to a continuous world. If one grain of sand doesn't make a heap (the argument goes), and the addition of one more grain of sand can't change whether something is a heap, then we can conclude from the principle of mathematical induction that no number n ∈ ℕ of grains make a heap. (Or, alternatively, that the absence of any sand constitutes a "heap of zero grains".) Analogously, if a sufficiently small change in MtF transition outcome can't change whether someone is a woman, then we are seemingly forced to accept that either everyone is a woman or no one is.

While the Sorites paradox is certainly an instructive exercise in the philosophy of language, its practical impact seems limited: most people find it more palatable to conclude that that the heap-ness is a somewhat fuzzy concept, rather than to concede that the argument isn't actually about the amount of sand in a location. And if you brought a single grain of sand when someone asked you for a heap, they probably wouldn't hesitate to say, "That's not what I meant by heap in this context and you know it."

If that's the side of this question you come down on, then I encourage you to ask yourself why that trans women still doesn't count. I expect that whatever your answer, that's the real definition you’re using, not "biological".

I definitely agree that this is a valuable thought experiment: in this limit of perfect physical transition technology, what possible reasons could there be to deny that trans women are women? Allow me to give a conditional answer.

If psychological sex differences aren't real, then there aren't any: ex hypothesi, the physiological differences between females and males are the only thing for the word woman to attach to, and ex hypothesi, we know how to fix those.

Alternatively, if psychological sex differences are a thing, and transness is a brain intersex condition such that pre-transition trans women are already psychologically female, then again, there aren't any: ex hypothesi &c.

However, if we should be so unlucky to live in a world in which psychological sex differences are a thing and most trans women are motivated to transition by some other reason than already having female minds, then we face some subtleties: if our thought-experimental perfect transition tech doesn't edit minds, then we end up with a bunch of female-bodied people with a distribution of psychologies that isn't just not-identical to that of natal females, but is actually coming out of the male distribution. Should such people be called women? Honestly, I lean towards Yes, but I can at least see the argument of someone who preferred not to use the word that way.

Wrapping up—

3) What does this definition of 'woman' get you?

It gets us a concept to refer to the set of adult human females. (Even if, again, we often also use the word woman in a broader trans-inclusive sense; it's not uncommon for words to have both narrower and broader definitions which can be distinguished from context.)

If the concept of women in the narrow, trans-exclusionary sense is to be forbidden from polite Society, then people trying to make sense of their experiences will be forced to reinvent it, probably by means of obfuscatory neologisms ("assigned female at birth") coupled with the quietly indefatigable wordless anticipation that it's somehow not a coincidence that cis women and trans men and a.f.a.b. nonbinary people get pregnant sometimes, but cis men and trans women and a.m.a.b. nonbinary people never do.

I want to live in that glorious future of Total Morphological Freedom. But nature to be commanded must be obeyed. To get godlike mastery over our physical forms, to break free of the prison of today's unremediated genderspace, is going to require a detailed understanding of exactly how things work today, as it is only from such knowledge that pallative interventions can be designed. And, bluntly, the fact that the smartest people I know tend to direct more of their effort towards redefining top-20 nouns than on biotechnology research, does not exactly inspire confidence or hope.