Speaking of Good Explanations…

03 Feb


(Guitar is a lot harder to learn if it takes up 3/4ths of your body!)

For once I’m not going to pick on the poor reasoning skills of the religious 🙂

On Facebook, one of my friends who is a female singer-songwriter, asked a question about why there is such a skewed gender ratio in the music industry; specifically dealing with the touring musician. Most of the people she sees on the road are guys. What’s the deal? I would have attempted to answer, but I didn’t want my newsfeed blowing up due to sexism issues. The vast majority of my friends are liberals and thus have a high prior for issues dealing with male privilege and keeping women down. I don’t disagree that it’s a factor, but it shouldn’t be the first explanation we jump to for these sorts of things. I would think we have to rule out possible biological reasons for such a ratio (one person did attempt doing that in the comments thread, but was accused of being a sexist and committing the naturalistic fallacy. Note: The naturalistic fallacy only applies to moral issues; the guy wasn’t saying that that’s the way it was supposed to be but rather giving an explanation).

Her favorite answer to her gender skewing question was:

“I think that the life of the traveling musician, or better the idea of that life, is very close to the cultural archetype of what freedom means in America. You’re on the open road, you go where you want, do what you want, say what you want, drink what you want, fuck who you want, everyone loves you, you get paid for it, and the next night you’ll be somewhere else so there are no real consequences. None of that’s true, exactly, but it’s the idea, and with touring musicians you can believe it in a way that they can’t over at accounts receivable.

And so OK, there’s the sexism, the boys not wanting the girls to be that free. And that has to play out in all sorts of nuanced ways within the industry. But there’s also the fact that American women are only three or four generations from having the legal and social status of vending machines. It’s 2013, all the girls want to be free, but to reach for the absolute top-shelf version of freedom that our culture has to offer? That takes some guts.”

This raised all sorts of alarms with me due to overuse of some dark arts. No matter what, I don’t think we should be positing unconscious conspiracy theories to explain sociological phenomena. As I like to say, conspiracy theories are just religion logic without appealing to the supernatural.

Now what of my Good Explanation post? Does this pass any of the criteria I listed? The thing I’m thinking of here is precision and the Positive Bias. What sort of evidence would the above explanation say shouldn’t exist? The first thing that pops into my head is that the explanation above might posit that there were no touring women prior to around the 1960s. That is demonstrably false; many of the original blues singers in the early 1900s, for example, were women (and even worse, black!). And they were touring.

I also have the benefit of having tried to be a singer-songwriter myself. These are some of the things that I’ve noticed:

1. Playing guitar is hard. Not as hard as some other instruments, but it is. One of the things that makes playing guitar easier is if you have big hands. Men generally have bigger hands than women. And there’s probably an evolutionary psychology reason for that. IIRC having smaller hands is correlated with less testosterone and higher fertility. Of course, that explanation might be wrong, but generally if one sex has a specific feature that the other sex doesn’t, then it was sexually selected for by the opposite sex. So assuming an equal number of men as women attempt playing guitar, women will have more obstacles at this initial stage than men.

There are exceptions, obviously. Like 7 year olds who completely kick my ass at guitar playing. But I’m speaking probabilistically and not deterministically. Not every woman has the fortitude to get over that physical hump, but some do; like my singer-songwriter friend.

2. Getting good enough to play guitar competently and learn how to sing while playing guitar and learning how to write songs, like my friend does, requires a lot of time and effort. Not just any old time and effort, but time and effort by yourself. The age when most people start forging their identity, middle-school / high-school, is when they would start trying to learn how to play guitar and try to make it part of their identity. This is one of the worst times to try to be a loner, nerding out on a particular hobby by yourself. Girls would get sucked into the social pressure of trying to fit in with a clique as would guys. My singer-songwriter friend said that she didn’t go to high school and was homeschooled. This would prevent her from the added sociological pressure from other girls to conform to a high school clique. That brings up a related point:

3. We try to emulate people we admire when forging our identity at this age. There aren’t many images of women in the media playing guitar while there is an overabundance of media depicting men playing guitar. Or in bands. So for guys at the identity forging stage of their lives, they might find other like-minded guys to form a band and that would be their clique. So overall, there won’t be an equal number of men and women even attempting to play guitar. The ones that do would have to not only overcome the bare physical challenge of much more likely having smaller hands, but the sociological demotivation/challenge as well.

4. I was a member of the singer-songwriter’s society at NYU. I noticed that there were more men than women going regularly to the club. Not significantly more, maybe around 5 guys to 3-4 girls, but it was skewed. This wouldn’t be the whole story, obviously, but I would think that if there was an unconscious conspiracy to prevent women from touring, they simply would be unable to be successful and would be equally represented in a touring precursor like the club at NYU. I’ve also gone to select open mic nights in NYC and Pittsburgh attempting my hobby, and singer-songwriter women were less represented at that touring precursor stage than men. Even though those are both anecdotal, they are evidence (I plan to make that a “Logical fallacies as weak Bayesian evidence” post 😉 ). Again, the explanation that my friend liked above fails at precision.

Like I wrote above, my friend probably didn’t like it because it was “true” per se but because underlying the entire explanation was gushing about how awesome my friend is. So, of course she would like it thus would think it was true.


Posted by on February 3, 2013 in cognitive science


3 responses to “Speaking of Good Explanations…

  1. Ed Jones

    February 13, 2013 at 1:46 am

    This is a comment I attempted to post on Neil’s last post to which you commented, it seems to have been rejected. I post it here – you may find it to be of interest.
    This suggests a related post: Debunking Christianikty – A viabe solution to Earl Doughdy’s “Jesus Puzzle”.. Note John’s LINK and the eight comment.

    • Ed Jones

      February 18, 2013 at 5:08 pm

      New post: Solving the “Jesus Puzzle” by debunking the Mythicism argument. Where? Go to 34 Search Engines enter: Debunking Christianity: Ed Jones on A viable solution – , scroll to and click on. Note the 7th and 8th comments, the first five are not relevant to the post. Note John’s LINK to where he found “A viable solution-“and Hoffmann’s reply: “Ed: Thank you so much for that – filled with wisdom and understanding – like Job!” Interestingly John’s above post appeared just 14 days after: The Christian Reaction to Jesus Mythicism, which contained John’s statement: ”Christians will more likely listen to me than to someone who claims Jesus probably didn’t exist at all.”

  2. Edward Jones

    July 31, 2013 at 9:26 pm

    The above named 7th and 8th comments have been deleted after the 7th comment stood for some time carrying John’s reply: “Thanks for the comment”.

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