Problems in attributing causation: women’s participation and success in chess

Also in Friday’s Australian Financial Review, this time on page 5 of the ‘Review’ section, was an article by Dominic Lawson about why women were under-represented among the ranks of top chess players worldwide. English grandmaster Nigel Short has, at some time in the recent past, written a column in the New In Chess magazine claiming that:

… there is something innately different between the brains of men and women, which means that the latter can never be a match at chess for those of us with a Y chromosome. “Men and women’s brains are hardwired very differently, so why should they function in the same way?” wrote Short, attacking what he called “that irritating modern psychological urge to prove all of us, everywhere, are equal”.

Lawson draws on science, and in particular statistics, that field of knowledge so close to Stebbing-Heuer’s heart, to correct this view:

More than six years ago in Standpoint magazine I wrote on this theme, having come across a significant paper by a group of Oxford psychology academics, led by Meriam Bilalic. It asserted the relative under-performance of women as a statistical phenomenon, rather than anything connected with “different wiring”. Analysing the number of rated German chess players of both genders, it demonstrated that the distribution of ratings among females was exactly what one might expect given there were far fewer of them than males. This is akin to the fact there are many more highly rated chessplayers from China than from, say, Luxembourg: the talent pool is vastly bigger.

In other words, if as many women were playing chess as men, Bilalic and his colleagues argued, you would have as many women contesting at the highest level. I buy the statistical argument.

So far so good. The argument is that there are fewer high-ranked women in the chess world because there are fewer women playing chess than men, not because their brains aren’t wired for success in chess. Short’s attribution of causation appears to be in error (yes, even chess genii make errors – you see why this blog is so important!). One always has to be careful when attributing causation for some phenomenon or another: don’t simply work off what you see and jump to the most apparent conclusion; instead, look at those base rates – they carry relevant information that will bear importantly on your analysis.

OK, that’s the first part of the article. But Lawson’s continuation of the story is interesting for our purposes as well. Because he appears to miss a conclusion that would, to some extent, support Short’s main conclusion.

I buy the statistical argument. But it misses out the first stage of the process.

Why is it, precisely, that there are far fewer rated female chess players in Germany (and elsewhere) than males? …

I had a chance to discuss this with one of Bilalic’s co-authors, professor Peter McLeod, last month. I agreed with him that the issue was nothing to do with differential intelligence – not least because the world’s best male chessplayers do not usually have genius-level IQs. But I suggested there was something about chess that seemed to obsess men much more than it does women.

He agreed with the proposition and added (in a written postscript to our discussion): “Trying to understand why this should be is more likely to uncover a major difference in the sexes than looking for a cognitive explanation for the greater number of males among the best players.”

Following the lead provided by McLeod, Lawson then moves into the world of speculative hypotheses and anecdote”

The question was addressed back in the 1970s by the witty Dutch grandmaster Jan Hein Donner: “During their games, chessplayesr are incommunicado, they are imprisoned. What is going on in their heads is narcissistic self-gratification with a minimum of objective reality, a wordless sniffing and grabbing in a bottomless pit. Women do not like that and who is to blame them?”

A few months ago, I had this insight confirmed, and from an impeccable source. Hou Yifan, who as a young teenager was the strongest chessplayer of her age in the world, ahead of all the young male talents, told me she was by no means sure she wanted to play chess for the rest of her life. She said she had other things she wanted to do and experience – and as a result had temporarily stopped playing in order to get a degree in international relations.

This echoes the outlook of Judit Polgar’s sister Sofia, who at the age of 14 had herself achieved global fame by wining a tournament in Italy ahead of several male grandmasters, with the phenomenal score of eight wins, one draw and no losses. Yes Sofia gave up chess altogether, declaring: “It’s not that chess was too much for me; it was too little.”

[Judit Polgár being the Hungarian prodigy who once ranked eighth in the world.]

Now to me, this suggests that there is a fundamental difference between men and women with regard to chess. And not with regard to ability, but with regard to interest in the game. And that difference may be because of differences between men’s and women’s brains – the wiring of women’s brains may cause them to be less interested in playing chess, regardless of their ability. And so they don’t take it up, and don’t become grandmasters, in the same numbers as men.

So, to return to McLeod’s speculations, we may have to investigate a cognitive explanation for the greater number of males among all players, rather than just the best players, to answer the question of why there is a greater number of males among the best players.

So Short may be right in thinking that the reason for the paucity of female grandmasters is to do with the different wiring of men’s and women’s brains – it’s just that the wiring isn’t different in the way he thought.

And Lawson missed this entire angle! What a shame.

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About Stebbing Heuer

A person interested in exploring human perception, reasoning, judgement and deciding, and in promoting clear, effective thinking and the making of good decisions.
This entry was posted in Base Rates, Problem Solving, Reasoning and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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