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May 14, 2005 8:48 AM   Subscribe

The Science of Gender Science. A debate by Pinker vs. Spelke on the research on mind, brain, and behavior that may be relevant to gender disparities in the sciences, including the studies of bias, discrimination and innate and acquired difference between the sexes. (via Edge)
posted by semmi (25 comments total)

 
Aww. I thought about posting this a couple days ago, then MeFi went down and I forgot about it. It's a great read... It's kind of interesting when you get opinions from people who respect each other and have fairly similar views on just what the data supports, but come to different conclusions about it.
posted by klangklangston at 8:52 AM on May 14, 2005


Well ... ok. Poor old male-minded Pinker sees things in simple straight lines, failing to convince, while Spelke's feminine ability to deal with complexity and subtlety makes her far and away the winner of the argument.
posted by TimothyMason at 9:50 AM on May 14, 2005


I'm sort of surprised that the idea that someone raised to be nurturing and people-focused isn't going to be as likely to go into hard science as someone raised to be competitive and object-focused didn't come up earlier in the discussion.

A very interesting read.
posted by schroedinger at 10:43 AM on May 14, 2005


Timothy, lol, I thought Pinker actually won, although I was giving him the edge going in. Liz was more compelling than I thought she would be though. And I wasn't aware of the subtle discrimination even in academia. It fits along with the implicit discrimination group over there too (implicit). I have some background in both biology and psych, but I couldn't determine who was "right", so I'm going to say its probably still inconclusive. Anyway, they both agree (and I agree too) that this is more of an empirical question than anything having to do with social/political policy.
posted by nads at 11:18 AM on May 14, 2005


This is like two Victorians arguing about space travel. They're trying to second-guess the results of research that we can't even do yet. Let's have another hundred years' progress in genetics and neuroscience, and then maybe we'll be ready to figure out whether gender affects scientific ability.

In the meantime, it's fun to speculate and place bets — and I've gotta hand it to them, Pinker and Spelke both give good reasons for betting the way they do — but we aren't gonna get an answer just by talking.

[Good link, though! Thanks for sharing!]
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:34 AM on May 14, 2005


Scientists debate continually, and reality is the check. They may have egos as large as those possessed by the iconic figures of the academic humanities, but they handle their hubris in a very different way. They can be moved by arguments, because they work in an empirical world of facts, a world based on reality. There are no fixed, unalterable positions. They are both the creators and the critics of their shared enterprise. Ideas come from them and they also criticize one another's ideas.

One of the more self-indulgent paragraphs I've read recently?

This is like two Victorians arguing about space travel. They're trying to second-guess the results of research that we can't even do yet. Let's have another hundred years' progress in genetics and neuroscience, and then maybe we'll be ready to figure out whether gender affects scientific ability.

Unlike Victorians arguing about space travel, this has real-world consequences for women in science, who may or may not be discriminated against depending on the outcome of this research.

It strains credulity to argue that there has never been institutional sexism in the sciences. Wither it still exists today? Who knows.

What I do know is that there should be more chicks in the sciences, so that male scientists have a better show at getting laid.

I don't have time to read all this, so I'm going to have to stop calling summer’s an idiot.

Anyhoo.
posted by delmoi at 1:46 PM on May 14, 2005


We know that discrimination exists in science today - Spelke cites some of the recent research on this, including a study which showed that average men are more likely to get hired than average women.
posted by jb at 1:57 PM on May 14, 2005


We know that discrimination exists in science today - Spelke cites some of the recent research on this, including a study which showed that average men are more likely to get hired than average women.

True, but by itself the fact that women are discriminated against in the sciences can't account for the difference in distribution of genders across different disciplines. What that would require is the additional assumption that women aren't discriminated against in the social sciences and humanities. The minimal evidence I've seen suggests that's not the case. Discrimination against women doesn't appear to vary much as a function of discipline (nor is it restricted to academics, for that matter).

That doesn't justify discrimination against women, of course--discrimination is something we should strive to eliminate (insofar as is possible) regardless of where it shows up. But the point is that discrimination alone can't explain why women don't show up as frequently in the sciences unless it can also explain why men don't show up as frequently in the humanities. The prediction that non-specific discrimination against women makes is that there should be fewer women overall in academics. That prediction turns out to be true: while an equal number of women and men attain Ph.D.'s, men still outnumber women at the faculty level. So the discrimination issue is certainly important in its own right, but it's probably not responsible for the discipline-specific gender differences.

As an aside, it's interesting to note that this entire controversy has focused largely on the relative absence of women in the natural sciences and mathematics. It could just as easily have focused on the relative absence of men in the social sciences and humanities. In many fields (including mine--psychology) a significant majority of Ph.D.-earners are now women. It's hard to imagine the same level of controversy arising had someone suggested that biological gender differences make men less likely to go into the social sciences and humanities than women. Why the discrepancy?
posted by heavy water at 2:23 PM on May 14, 2005


I once taught a class of future electrical engineers. There were two female students and thirty males. One of the females left after three months, unable to take the unthinking machism of the males. The other one was very keen and very tough. I don't think it ever registered on the males what they were doing. (And yes, we tried).
posted by TimothyMason at 2:27 PM on May 14, 2005


It seemed like the most important things that Spelke failed to really discuss in detail were the ideas about how differently each gender approaches math problems. She pretty weakly just claimed that the different styles 'average out' to produce equal mathematical ability, but that hardly seems obvious to me. Especially at elite levels, different approaches to problems should have different success rates. Pinker claimed that women are better at raw calculation, which should be less valuable thanks to computers. Clearly the social challenges facing women in science currently outweigh whatever real gender differences may exist, but each side of the debate needs to do a bit better covering all the angles before I'll be convinced either way about whether or not there are real and significant differences.
posted by spooman at 4:12 PM on May 14, 2005


What I think Spelke was saying about it not mattering how they got there was that men and women might use their brains differently - but they were getting to the right answers just fine. Does it matter how they acheive the answer? Isn't diversity of thought and method in science a good thing?

Her damning evidence is that men and women perform at the same levels in university-level science, as opposed to abstracted tests. Those tests, as she points out, have questionable validity (i.e. they may not measure quite what we think they measure), whereas university science performance is exactly what we want to know about.

It is funny the asumption that however men's brains work, that's the way that's best for science. What if all along, women's different brains are better for science, but they have been systematically kept out (for thousands of years, remember) by men who look for people who think in the same ways they do. This is mostly a facetious point, mostly, as I tend to believe Spelke's idea that no matter what the secondary sex characteristics are, they end up being a lot less important when it comes to applied brain use, but it is an interesting assumption to explore. We know absolutely that women were completely discriminated against in all higher education, so we can't assume that just because men have traditionally been scientists that theirs is the mode best suited. It would be like saying women clearly can't cook well, because all the world's best chefs have traditionally been male.

I just did have a funny thought - weaving is something that is often traditionally thought of as female (as in ancient Greece, or frontier North America), and is very a complex art of working with thread and patterns. But when it was done for wages in early modern England, females were pushed right out of weaving and into spinning. Clearly, they were capable of weaving (they had done it elsewhere for millenia and most handweavers today are women), but I can just imagine some 17th century weaving making an argument on why men were so clearly better suited to weaving.

----------

There very well may be discrimination in the social sciences and humanities; actually, recent studies have shown that women and minorities are disproportionately likely to hold part-time insecure teaching positions than recently hired white men (don't know if this was of all American universities, or Ivy League). But if you have many many more women going into the discipline in the first place, then you will see a greater number coming out. Women are graduating in significant numbers in the social sciences and humanities - but are they receiving tenure track jobs in the same proportion? (These studies say no.)

I don't think people are saying that there are various social and individual pressures that also push women away from science, including the sheer fact of their minority and what this means for the environment they work in. Recently, the Chronicle of High Education ran a profile on the Physics Department at Duke University, where female faculty and graduate students said they constantly felt like no one cared what they thought, ignored what they said at meetings, etc. There was no discrimination in the institution that one could point to - they had all the right diversity programs - but the attitude and behaviour of their colleagues made the environment hostile.

There certainly are secondary sex characteristics, and socially developed ways of communication, etc, that are very important. I have often wondered about the way women interact in meetings and in classrooms, and whether this might make it harder for them to be agressive/as confident appearing as men. Personally, I am female, but rather typically "male" in my conversational habits; I find arguing with men easy, and never have a problem getting attention in any meeting (in fact, I have to make sure I tone down my natural agressive tendancy to interrupt). I also haven't had any problem with discipline in my classroom, and received very good reviews (despite the fact that women also tend to be rated worse by students). If there is something to this, then maybe both the system needs to change, and women need to change too.
posted by jb at 4:53 PM on May 14, 2005


I don't know whether aggressiveness is necessarily better in teaching--remember that video of that guy who was flipping out and screaming at the kid who wouldn't stand for the US national anthem? I think it's more about respect. Do you know whether the comparision of female scores vs. male scores is done in percentages or raw numbers? Raw numbers wouldn't say much, as more women than men are teachers so more women would get lower scores.

I've always wondered, if this business about women being better at empathetic discussion and nurturing and men being more aggressive and whatnot is true, why we don't put more women in diplomatic and government positions? Seems to me empathetic, human-centric discussion style would be far more effective at resolving conflict than macho posturing.
posted by schroedinger at 5:50 PM on May 14, 2005


Timothy, lol, I thought Pinker actually won, although I was giving him the edge going in. Liz was more compelling than I thought she would be though. And I wasn't aware of the subtle discrimination even in academia.

Or, apparently, on Metafilter.

PS: If you refer to the man by his last name, perhaps you can do the same for the woman? Using the first name, particularly with the diminutive, shows different levels of respect. Right?
posted by jokeefe at 6:47 PM on May 14, 2005


schroedinger - I didn't really mean agressive in the chair throwing sense (which probably would not have been good, though you never know with undergrads :) - I meant agressive in my conversational habits. I tend to interrupt, and am quite adament in my opinion. You are probably right that these aren't always best - I conciously tone down both when teaching or in meetings - but I think it also means that I can get attention when I need it quite easily, have no quams about speaking up, etc. Some women have complained about finding it difficult to talk in a male culture, whereas I have never found this, and I was just wondering if it might be related to the fact that I was not socialised very well in female conversation ways when in grade school and high school.

About the government - well, many feminists have claimed that an "empathetic, human-centric discussion style would be far more effective at resolving conflict than macho posturing" - but macho posturing is much better for getting into that position of power to begin with.

But to tell the truth, I think it is also one of the more extreme feminist myths that women are more "empathetic, human-centric" in their discussion method. They aren't more empathetic (anyone who has been on the receiving end of teenage girl bullying could tell you that), but it is different from male conversation. I don't remember the exact study, but I had heard that male conversation (beginning about grade school) rewards interrupting, trying to hold the conversation (this is what I meant by agressive) - whereas female status comes from appearing to be very polite, not stepping on each other's words, etc - but there is subtle ingrouping and outgrouping. Interrupting is very bad among women, as is dominating the conversation.

I was just wondering about this, because a fellow female TA was talking about how she felt she couldn't talk to her students in the mock stern way a male TA in the same class was. Partly it was her personality and personal situation - she is very soft-spoken and also speaks English as a second language (very well, but slightly hesitantly and with an accent) - but I also wondered how much of that soft-spokenness is learned gender behaviour, especially because I felt like I was the least soft-spoken female TA among our group, while I was just the same level of non-soft-spokenness as all the male TAs.
posted by jb at 7:05 PM on May 14, 2005


schroedinger, I don't know about diplomacy, but when the whole globalization thing started up in earnest, there was a lot of literature coming out talking about how American businesswomen tended to do a lot better working with foreign clients than American businessmen did, even if those clients were from "traditional" societies where there weren't many women in business. The business traits that American men tend to prize -- aggressiveness, get-to-the-point-no-small-talk meetings, arguments, etc. -- don't tend to go over very well in countries like Italy and France and Japan, where often personal relationships are valued over economic gain or "winning."

A number of HR departments were really pushing for more women to be sent overseas for ex-pat positions because of this.
posted by occhiblu at 7:24 PM on May 14, 2005


Despite tacking it onto the end of a previous discussion I think this is very worthy of a FPP. Thanks semmi.

heavywater:It could just as easily have focused on the relative absence of men in the social sciences and humanities.
Indeed. This debate came about because Summers as Harvard president basically intimated that men were more intelligent than women (or at least that's how I believe it's been mostly reported although I haven't seen the original). That was a nearsighted faux pas of the highest order IMHO. These biological v socialization discussions are all very well and interesting but they're always speculative and never going to reach a conclusion. There's a reason for that: it's too complex to be teased apart into constituent components. It's different for every individual. I'm more interested in making sure that each individual has an equal opportunity to do whatever it is the sum of their biology and experiences inclines them towards. But there's a risk when debates of this kind are elevated in the public conciousness to latch onto specific points or theories to explain away data spreads such as relative numbers of each sex in certain professions at the risk of missing other, equally important obstactles or backgrounds or even gender issues that play a role. At its worst, debate about gender stereotypes helps, perhaps only subconciously, perpetuation of the patriarchal dominance in higher end employment situations.
I went into nursing from school (best thing a boy could ever do) and did a BSc later. My little altruisitic belief is that we all have potential on both sides of the sci/humanities line.
posted by peacay at 8:39 PM on May 14, 2005


Indeed. This debate came about because Summers as Harvard president basically intimated that men were more intelligent than women (or at least that's how I believe it's been mostly reported although I haven't seen the original).

I've read the transcript, and he certainly never suggested men are more intelligent. What he suggested was that innate biological differences might be one (just one) potential explanation for the lack of women in the natural sciences and mathematics. The press, of course, blew his comments out of proportion--no surprise there.

These biological v socialization discussions are all very well and interesting but they're always speculative and never going to reach a conclusion. There's a reason for that: it's too complex to be teased apart into constituent components.

I disagree. There are lots of cases where the debate concerning biological vs. socialization explanations once ran rampant and is now pretty much dead. Personality is a nice example. There used to be, in scientific circles, tremendous contention over whether individual differences in traits such as extraversion, neuroticism, etc. were due to genetic or environmental influences. That debate has been pretty much settled. Not only do we now know that it's both, but behavioral genetics studies let us get pretty good estimates of just how much of the variance is due to each. It turns out that for most personality traits, about 50% of the variance is due to genes and 50% to environment (specifically to non-shared environment, i.e., influences that are unique to each individual and not common to the family environment).

The reason it's more difficult to settle the issue with gender is that, unfortunately, you can't have genetically identical male and female siblings to conduct behavioral genetics studies on! So you have to use lots of indirect, predominantly correlational, methods. But that doesn't mean there's no answer in sight. If you fall in the Pinker camp (which I happen to), there's already pretty good evidence supporting the notion that gender differences are partially biological. We don't yet know to exactly what degree, and getting estimates will be difficult, but there's certainly no reason to throw in the towel yet...

I'm more interested in making sure that each individual has an equal opportunity to do whatever it is the sum of their biology and experiences inclines them towards.

Absolutely. But I think both camps would agree with this. The political debate over how to deal with discrimination has little to do with the empirical issue of whether gender differences in motivation and cognitive abilities are due in part to biology.
posted by heavy water at 8:57 PM on May 14, 2005


heavywater: I disagree -- me: "biological v socialization discussions are..never going to reach a conclusion"

I should have clarified that I meant this statement when applied to gender disparity in professions. As I said, I do think it's interesting (and for the record, I too, more easily fall in with the Pinker 'camp') and I wouldn't want research to necessarily cease. But again, I kind of worry that the backend in some situations might be justification for subtle discriminations. As I've said elsewhere, gender studies are great, but my science side sees it more in terms of precision with regards to medical treatment. But I'm no educationist. I do also see upsides. Do I nail myself to the top of the fence? Very well then, I nail myself to the top of the fence.

Oh and regarding Summers - thanks for clarifying - I did posit a caveat of sorts. Feckin' press. And I thought you could trust them. Got a link for the original?
posted by peacay at 9:18 PM on May 14, 2005


Whoa: Summers statement became a big deal not because of the press, but because he'd pissed off much of the faculty with a high-handed and arrogant management style: the brain sex stuff just broke the camel's back.

Female faculty appointments dropped off sharply after he took office, particularly in the sciences. His statement, which some took as an explanation or perhaps an apologia for his policy, was easy to take as biased. If you compare his speech with Pinker's, you'll notice that the points presented are virtually identical (Pinker perhaps more diplomatic), while no mention is made of the compelling, if inconclusive, evidence that Spelke presents to the contrary.

When an authority figure with a bad track record presents a single sided view in an indelicate manner and does not even acknowledge the possibility of bias, it's understandable that people could get upset.

Furthermore, math is not a single subject which requires a single manner of thought. Number theory requires talents completely different than those needed for differential geometry. A strong aptitude for theoretical physics isn't a good predictor for success in experimental physics. To say nothing of far remoter disciplines such as chemistry, biology, or engineering.
posted by cytherea at 11:19 PM on May 14, 2005


Well I see now that the Summers speech was interpreted variously .
posted by peacay at 12:29 AM on May 15, 2005


And:

What he suggested was that innate biological differences might be one (just one) potential explanation for the lack of women in the natural sciences and mathematics.

True, but he suggested only three total explanations, and specifically said innate biological differences were the second most important. It's not he went through a comprehensive check-list that the press or his critics subsequently ignored.
posted by occhiblu at 11:16 PM on May 15, 2005


Actually I think Spelke probably won the debate (well, she did with me). The evidence of grading of potential College graduates was quite eye opening viz: female candidates were apparently consistently judged at a lower level. But if their sex wasn't identified they scored better.
(I'm paraphrasing badly but the point was that there's this ubiquitous viewing of women as being less capable at sci/math and that this prejudice -- unconcious, hopefully for the mostpart -- is in fact the major cause for the disparity in the tenured positions - and other reasons probably flow from that)
I'm certainly persuaded to a new view of the situation after reading and listening to the debate - I had only skimmed it before.

In fact, I think I'm switching camps. The argument was about tenured senior University positions -- if it was about brain chemistry or neurological development I'd be certainly more inclined towards a biological view -- and I can't believe anything other than sexism in any of its forms accounts for the gender disparity that's in evidence.
posted by peacay at 11:54 PM on May 15, 2005


Agreed, Spelke won. Hands down. And Pinker is a rather smug fellow, who, despite what he says about his willingness to listen to the other side, is given to wielding the hatchet - see, for example, his treatment of Whorf. (Read Nick Yee's rebuttal - oh, and then wander round the rest of his web-site which is rather interesting, particularly, perhaps, to gamers)
posted by TimothyMason at 4:38 AM on May 16, 2005


And just because it came out today, here's an excellent article from Natasha Walker (from the Guardian) in Prospect Magazine very much supporting the Spelke "nurture" line. This is a fine wrap up of the affair.
posted by peacay at 5:32 PM on May 18, 2005


For those who read freakonomics, there could be an interesting twist between the last chapter with names and women and science.
posted by nads at 11:41 PM on May 29, 2005


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