The Base Rate Fallacy

On Saturday, The Herald’s letters editor wrote a column headed by the question, So why don’t more women write to the papers?  He took an inventory for the week: Monday, 2 letters out of 12 published were from women. Tuesday – 3 out of 11.  Wednesday – ditto.  Thursday – 2 out of 12.  Friday – 1 out of 14.  Saturday – 2 out of 9.  Total – 13 out of 69, or just over 17%.  (Actually, 13 out of 69 is just under 19%, but let’s not quibble.)  I can add to this that today (Monday) the total is 1 out of 10, with 1 indeterminate because the writer has given his/her initials rather than a first name.  (Reading the letter, an assertive missive critical of a certain financial institution, I’m inclined to think the writer is male, but no doubt that just demonstrates a whole swag of my own prejudices and presuppositions.)  Apparently other newspapers show the same demographic. Now why, asks the letters editor, should this be?  Could it be that women are just too busy with childcare, preparing meals, multi-tasking in general?  Or perhaps women are more inclined than men to keep their opinions to themselves.

It occurred to me that the editor really ought to have told us, not merely the gender demographics of the letters published, but also those of the letters received, if only to rule out the possibility that female voices are being edited out. 

Then on Sunday, by an odd coincidence, another striking gender demographic came up.  On BBC Radio 4’s A Point of View, Zia Haider Rahman drew our attention to a newspaper article, stating that only 19% of people who read Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, are male.  Mr Rahman made the point that this is not remarkable, as apparently only one out of five males read any fiction at all.  So there is no case that men specifically choose not to read women authors.  Mr Rahman cites this as an example of what the statistician Sir David Spiegelhalter calls “the base rate fallacy”.   

Are we therefore to conclude that the reason why women have no time to write to the papers is that they are too busy reading novels?  It crossed my mind to write in to The Herald and make such a suggestion.  Maybe I will.  But it’s dangerous territory, is gender.  As a matter of fact there has been quite a lot of Herald correspondence lately on the vexed subject of gender identity.  Last week, Andrew Marr interviewed the Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey and asked him what was wrong with stating that a woman is an adult human female.  It was a question of some relevance, as Natalie Bird had made such an assertion, and in consequence had been banned from membership of the Liberal Democrat Party for ten years, since such an assertion was deemed to be transphobic.  Mr Marr did not exactly get a straight answer from Sir Ed.  One of the Herald’s journalists mounted a defence of Ms Bird, and was rather pilloried in the letters page by someone championing the rights of transgender people.  I thought, do I want to get involved in this debacle?  Why not?  I might be attacked on social media but I never look at social media anyway.  I wrote as follows:

What is surprising to me about the current debate on trans-gender issues (“Why can’t they say a woman is an adult human female?” The Herald, September 22) is the total absence of any reference to an individual’s chromosome complement.

You might argue we are all female, in that we all carry the genetic information for expressing female characteristics in the X chromosome.  Most females have twenty three pairs of chromosomes including two X chromosomes (46XX).  Individuals with Turner’s Syndrome (45X0) and so-called Superfemales (47XXX) have female characteristics.  It is the presence of the Y chromosome that conveys male characteristics, in both 46XY, and 47XXY (Klinefelter’s Syndrome).  You might say that maleness is a superimposition upon femaleness.  The arrangement 45Y0 is incompatible with life.  A mosaic pattern, by which an individual might develop cell lines with both XX and XY components – hermaphroditism – is rare.  Similarly, an XY individual may develop female characteristics because a crucial part of the Y chromosome has been deleted, but that again is vanishingly rare.  So, by and large, like it or not, mother nature with regard to gender takes a binary approach. 

Of course, this need not tell us whether or not the Y chromosome should be welcome in a Women’s Refuge, but at least it solves a problem of semantics.  If a woman (sic) chooses to wear a T-shirt with the logo “A man has a Y chromosome”, it would be hard to argue the point. 

The letter’s editor published me unedited, God bless him.  Thus far there have been no rejoinders.  I have not been told that I, and others of my “ilk”, should “hang our heads in shame”.  (Sometimes I think we inveterate writers to the press stick to our habit through a profound, unconscious desire to be hauled over the coals, to be told to wake up and smell the coffee.  You write in search of brickbats rather than bouquets, rather as a compulsive gambler’s deepest desire is not to win, but to lose.)  But I have received no comments, adverse or otherwise.  That, somebody told me, is because I have issued the definitive statement on the matter.  But I think they were just teasing me. 

Many women have withdrawn from public life because of the vitriol they have had to endure.  Perhaps this is the reason why they don’t feel inclined to write into the papers.  Maybe females are more vulnerable to attack, serious attack.  I remember a (male) academic philosopher wrote in some years back to state the case that women were not particularly at risk of assault.  Most victims of assault were male.  You can imagine the furore that caused.  More recently, somebody got into trouble by suggesting that young ladies ought to be “street-wise”.  It’s a mine field.  That’s the trouble.  It is a minefield – the street.        

So maybe that’s why there are so few letters to the editor from women.  Writing to the press is like taking a walk down the street, alone, at night. 

Meanwhile, to return to Margaret Atwood and David Spiegelhalter, why aren’t we chaps reading more novels?  When I heard about this on Sunday, I was reminded of something a friend of mine once said to me when we were at school:

“I can’t stand fiction.  I mean, it’s just a pack of f****** lies.”                       

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