Sharp Blue: Population filters; or The Wine Bar Drake Equation


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A post by Razib on the weblog Gene Expression about meeting a pretty sf fan[1] who was working in a wine bar seems to have created quite a storm in the science blogosphere in the last day or so. Shelley Batts, Suzanne Franks, Jennifer Ouellette, Tara Smith and PZ Myers all have interesting comments threads that are worth reading. However, I think that almost everyone is missing a key point.

We can consider the predicates is intelligent, is physically attractive and likes sf as filters on populations. Given a group of people we can pass them through the is intelligent filter and select out the intelligent subset, and similarly for the is attractive and likes sf filters. Each of the filters is a little bit subjective, because there are no absolutely agreed upon standards for how intelligent or attractive someone is or what counts as sf. For the sake of argument, let’s say someone passes the is intelligent filter if they’re in the top 10% of the general population ranked in intelligence as discerned by Razib[2], that they pass the is physically attractive filter if they’re in the top 10% of the general population ranked in hotness by him, and that 10% of the general population like what he or I would consider science fiction. Furthermore, let’s suppose that the three filters act independently[3]. (If you have more stringent filters then any degree of surprise will, of course, be greater.)

Razib’s surprise at meeting an attractive, intelligent[4] sf fan working in a wine is the surprise of a person who’s met someone who passes through three quite stringent filters. If only one in ten people get through each then a mere one in a thousand will get through all three. If we assume that people working in wine bars are an accurate reflection of the general population with respect to these three filters then you’d have to visit an awful lot of bars to find an attractive, intelligent sf fan working in one. Hence his post.

Most of the commenters seem to be implying that it shouldn’t be a surprise. Many of the examples given are along the lines of “I work in a science department and there are plenty of hot, smart people here!” But, of course, that’s working from a biased population. People found in a science department - excluding many support staff - have already passed the is intelligent filter. (If they work in your science department they’ve also most likely passed the is interesting filter that I haven’t mentioned until now.) This means that around one in ten people in the department will pass the joint is intelligent and is attractive filters, rather than one in a hundred in the general population. Hanging around science departments is a much better idea than hanging around bars if you want to meet smart, attractive people!

Furthermore, I think that many people are confusing making observations with perpetuating stereotypes. This is clearly very easy to do, and it’s also very easy for people to read comments like Razib’s as attempts to push stereotypes even if the comments are not intended to do so. I think I’m willing to give Razib the benefit of the doubt on this front, even though his choice of words would make it very easy to take what he’s said the other way. But I’m not going to wade into that debate as last time I made some reasonable, rational comments on the subject I was accused of being a brain-damaged purveyor of “pseudo-intellectual bullshit”[5].

The argument I’ve been making above can be seen in less charged ways too. For example, suppose I posted that I was quite surprised to meet someone on the bus-stop who was well-read in both history and science. I think that would be quite surprising as perhaps 1% of the general population is what I’d consider well-read in history and similarly for science. I’d have to talk to ten thousand people at the bus-stop - assuming people riding the bus from my suburb are representative of the general population - before meeting such a person. (Actually, probably quite a lot fewer than that as in this case I don’t think the two filters are anywhere near independent.) Given that I’ve only spoken to perhaps a dozen people on the bus-stop, it would be a surprise indeed! I don’t think anyone would find me making such a post objectionable[6] because it stays far from stereotypes of groups of people.

This article has generated an interesting comment thread on my Livejournal too.

[1] Not quite his choice of words…

[2] Of course, I’m really the ultimate arbiter of such things but I’m feeling magnanimous today.

[3] Which they probably don’t, but I think any correlations are likely to be fairly small.

[4] Okay, so he didn’t specify that she was intelligent, but she clearly likes not just sf but good sf[7] and I can read between the lines as well as any other blogger.

[5] I think my critic might have a point with that last part ;)

[6] Dull, perhaps, but not objectionable.

[7] I’m not sure if Hyperion is the best choice ever for someone new to sf though!

Sharpblue, you're using statistics and probability. Don't you know that when we're talking about women and science, all rules of rationality are to be suspended? :)

...seriously though, ever hang out at GNXP before? You might like it.

My statistician friend Caroline tells me that I must SMITE YOU for that first paragraph!

I hadn't looked at GNXP before this most recent storm. I read Pharyngula and Aetiology mostly, and some of the other Sciencebloggers occasionally. I think I might read more of them, and comment more often too.

Rich, I loved your point in the Mixing Memory thread: are any of those books good for newbie SF readers? I mean, Ender's Game is a power fantasy, so if you have the repressed nerd stereotype of science fiction fans going in you're just going to have it reinforced. Snow Crash is decent enough but I'm not sure if it's aged all that well. And Dan Simmons is entertaining but his books are pretty junky (I think of him as the Stephen King of SF.)

Snow Crash is also manifestly a parody of Neuromancer-style Cyberpunk, and I don't think that parodies are a good starting point. I think I'd tend to recommend The Diamond Age instead if I were inclined to recommend Stephenson.

Also, I don't think all of Simmons' books are junky. I don't think that the two Hyperion books are, although the Endymion ones assuredly are. But they might appear to be junk to an outsider.

I'm actually not at all sure what I'd recommend to a newbie. I've been reading sf for about twenty-five years and I've more or less forgotten what it's like to be unfamiliar with the genre. I certainly wouldn't recommend the Doctor Who novelisations that I started with! For a scientifically inclined reader I'd probably let them borrow a Greg Egan collection, I suppose.

Yeah, I'm not sure what I'd give a novice either. If I went with what I'm thinking of--Bester, Dick, and A Canticle For Leibowitz--I'd just be showing how out of touch I am with contemporary SF. And I'm very out of touch, the only guy I've read recently is China Mieville and I can't see him as being a good beginner's author either.

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