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February 29, 2008 10:47 AM   Subscribe


 
Dr. Leonard Sax: asshat pseudoscience. Why are people so willing to believe crackpot claims about sex differences?
posted by cogneuro at 10:53 AM on February 29, 2008 [7 favorites]


Whether or not we like it, it is a fact that there are significant cognitive and behavioral differences between the sexes, and certainly it makes sense to tailor the educational experience to those differences. However, I'm not sure I trust ANY governmental entity - federal or local - to actually successful establish a system that is separate AND equal.

In fact, I'm pretty sure that any attempt along these lines no matter how well-intentioned will result in a clusterfuck that in the long-run damages the children involved. Which in our country seems like the surest guarantee that the government will attempt it.
posted by Ryvar at 10:55 AM on February 29, 2008


Oy, Sax. He's a regular topic of discussion over at Language Log—here's an older write-up of both Sax's book and Louan Brizendine's The Female Brain that digs into some of the frustratingly twisted citation abuse and SCIENCE! going on with a lot of this work.

The guy knows how to monetize, though.
posted by cortex at 10:58 AM on February 29, 2008


Not a single point in favour of having both and girls interact since when they are kids, to see that they are not that different after all. It's heavily biased in favour of underlining difference, but dismissed similarities as if they were not as relevant as differences.
Sax refers to a few other studies that he says show that girls and boys draw differently, including one from a group of Japanese researchers who found girls’ drawings typically depict still lifes of people, pets or flowers, using 10 or more crayons, favoring warm colors like red, green, beige and brown; boys, on the other hand, draw action, using 6 or fewer colors, mostly cool hues like gray, blue, silver and black. This apparent difference, which Sax argues is hard-wired, causes teachers to praise girls’ artwork and make boys feel that they’re drawing incorrectly. Under Sax’s leadership, teachers learn to say things like, “Damien, take your green crayon and draw some sparks and take your black crayon and draw some black lines coming out from the back of the vehicle, to make it look like it’s going faster.” “Now Damien feels encouraged,” Sax explained to me when I first met him last spring in San Francisco. “To say: ‘Why don’t you use more colors? Why don’t you put someone in the vehicle?’ is as discouraging as if you say to Emily, ‘Well, this is nice, but why don’t you have one of them kick the other one — give us some action.’ ”
The difference doesn't cause shit, it's the teacher being judgmental. If you suggest any kid that their art isn't that good, regardless of what spin you give to it, they are going to register "not good" or "not ok". The problem is the teacher, not the gender !
posted by elpapacito at 10:59 AM on February 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


Whether or not we like it, it is a fact that there are significant cognitive and behavioral differences between the sexes, and certainly it makes sense to tailor the educational experience to those differences.

Setting aside the meatier question of behavior differences, one of the big hair-tearers with this sort of thing is the lack of significant cognitive differences between the sexes as compared with intrasex cognitive variation. If you want to talk about education targeted at cognitive demographics, gender doesn't seem to be anything like the key distinction to worry about.
posted by cortex at 11:02 AM on February 29, 2008 [7 favorites]


Source: Sax Sect Sez Sort School Sex Sets
posted by Freon at 11:12 AM on February 29, 2008 [7 favorites]


Meh.

If human learning styles can be clustered towards optimizing speed of upload and retention, that's awesome, especially if it turns out there are only a few clusters and it's feasible to determine which cluster is actually optimum for which human based upon how that human processes information and social interaction. It's unclear (to me) that we understand enough about how we learn to accomplish this, but it seems a worthy scientific inquiry.

If it's possible to allocate the resources and cater to each cluster, well, how absolutely groovy. Everyone who cares about the success of successive generations would probably agree that being able to optimize one's learning environment for the individual is a noble aspiration, even if not-quite-diamond-age attainable atm.

If it turns out that some clusters have more people who get wet in front, what a nifty correlation. Unless this correlation is 100%, we'd really be disenfranchising some number of people with false-positives towards a learning style by using gender as a delimiter. The variation between genders is swamped by the variation within each gender. (Upon preview: exactly what cortex pointed out.) Assume the laughable notion that there are only 2 valid learning styles, you won't find 100% correlation of cluster identity by gender.
posted by johnjoe at 11:13 AM on February 29, 2008


That's a great idea. Segregating children into groups based on age doesn't go far enough in creating an alienated, Us vs. Them mindset. When we implement gender segregation, can we also make children regiment themselves along lines of shoe size?
posted by bunnytricks at 11:17 AM on February 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure about young children, but once they get into puberty, the problem isn't that they're different, but that they react to each other in ways that can harm education. At least that's what I've heard. Boys will try to act like the 'class clown' and so on.

On the other hand, I think Boy/Girl socialization is important. I think the main problem with our education system is that they are not really even trying to give kids a good education in a lot of schools. They need to concentrate on hiring better teachers, getting parents more involved, reasonable measurement (rather then pointless standardized testing), etc. There is a giant gap between average elementary schools in this country and the best public schools.

We ought to work on closing that gap before implementing drastic, symbolic, hard-on-the-kids crap like gender segregated classes, school uniforms, or year-round school.
posted by delmoi at 11:18 AM on February 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


cortex:
That's why I said 'and behavioral'

johnjoe:
That works right up until a boy or girl is placed in an otherwise all-opposite-gender class and starts wondering what the hell is wrong with themselves. Or becomes the sole object of attention in that classroom. I love your general approach, but biological imperatives express themselves socially even at younger ages in ways that seem likely to give rise to extremely negative learning environments.
posted by Ryvar at 11:20 AM on February 29, 2008


I still believe that schooling is for socialization, as any halfwit who can read will receive much of their book learning at home or a library. Depriving half of the population of the insight and differences of the other side will be a disaster.

You think we have a problem with macho young men and impulse control now? Just wait until they've been sequestered away from females for their teenage years.

This will be far more damaging to males than females, I think.
posted by luriete at 11:21 AM on February 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


My test is fairly simple: If I do a little substitution, does it still make sense? Take the first art of Ryvar's comment for example (Not picking on Ryvar per se, just using it for illustrative purposes):

"Whether or not we like it, it is a fact that there are significant cognitive and behavioral differences between the sexes races, and certainly it makes sense to tailor the educational experience to those differences."

See, change one word and it becomes the same stuff that got James Watson in deep shit. In which case, I say the theory is also likely shit, and even if parts of this gender difference are based in reality, taking it to the conclusion Sax has come to will inevitably cause more harm than good in the long run.

Take eugenics for a real-life example. Bunch of people read Darwin and thought a lot about the idea of better living through better genes. While in theory it sounds good, the reality was the forced sterilization of an awful lot of people deemed "unfit", and that was probably the least offensive part of what the movement became.
posted by caution live frogs at 11:26 AM on February 29, 2008 [2 favorites]


(By which I mean, sometimes scientists should know when it's important to push for social changes based on new findings, and at other times realize that for the good of the world it might be better just to shut the hell up. And I say this as a scientist.)
posted by caution live frogs at 11:28 AM on February 29, 2008


That's why I said 'and behavioral'

Yeah, but there shouldn't have been an 'and' before 'behavioral', or a 'cognitive' before said 'and', is what I'm saying. If you describe Micheal Jordan as "short and athletic", you're not right just because he's athletic, and—aw, damn it all, I can't stay mad at you.

*starts pillowfight*

posted by cortex at 11:32 AM on February 29, 2008


Most of the high schools in the medium-sized (~100K) town I grew up in (New Zealand) were single-sexed. It just wasn't a big deal. There was plenty of time to interact with the opposite sex outside of school. Then again, we all wore school uniforms as well, and many Americans seem to get into a huge flap about that as well.
posted by gaspode at 11:36 AM on February 29, 2008


just what we need! less communication between sexes! divide us more based on the superficial! we are not a unified human race or one nation indivisable, just discreet groups which interact according to "inherent" biological laws that are only apparent to psuedo-science arch-wizards cherry-picking data to suit their nefarious schemes!


pardon my crude, but this reaks of teh ghey...





this can all be applied to the liberal/conservative "species" FPP above.
posted by [son] QUAALUDE at 11:59 AM on February 29, 2008


caution live frogs:
There's a huge difference there - even if you accept the basic premise, racism is fundamentally flawed at the most basic level because of interracial breeding, which is only increasing in frequency as geographic and linguistic barriers are broken down. Because of this, there is absolutely no way to guarantee correlation between genetic factors that may have cognitive impact and skin color. Moreover, cognitive/behavioral differences between races appear to be far more influenced by socio-economic factors than anything else.

Gender is different because we KNOW there are significant genetic differences - and not just XY vs. XX chromosome but also codings common to both genders that only express themselves for a particular gender, and we KNOW they have behavioral impact common across all social and economic groups.

There is a qualitative difference here.
posted by Ryvar at 12:04 PM on February 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


Setting aside the meatier question of behavior differences, one of the big hair-tearers with this sort of thing is the lack of significant cognitive differences between the sexes as compared with intrasex cognitive variation.

EXACTLY. Repeat as many times as necessary until memorized. Consider with respect to all purported differences between groups (e.g., racial differences in IQ).
posted by cogneuro at 12:05 PM on February 29, 2008


I went to an all-boy (Catholic) high school. It was a great education. But I think it was the academic rigor and high expectations that made the difference, not the absence of girls.
posted by tommasz at 1:05 PM on February 29, 2008


Ryvar, I've got a two year old daughter, and I'd have no objection to her placing into some mostly all-boys hoola-hoop class or whathaveyou after learning that her style of hoola-hoop learning is more traditionally correlated with "teh boys" (what a crisis). I'm much more concerned about the jackass who asserts "girls can't do organic chemistry," or who otherwise attempts to socialize her into mental (and verily, even behavioral) foot-binding. She can take her chances with the spooky biological imperatives you invoke above, especially in an environment of caring and attentive teachers who communicate issues with caring and attentive parents. If any of those adjectives are absent, there are more pressing problems than catering to individual learning styles.
posted by johnjoe at 1:08 PM on February 29, 2008


Gender is different because we KNOW there are significant genetic differences

Yes, I know. I've taught genetics. I also know (as cortex already hinted at above) that intrasex variation is actually greater than intersex variation: In other words, differences between two men (or two women) can be greater than the differences between men and women.

I've seen some really cool functional MRI scans showing that men and women use their brains differently. Actual measured differences between how much gray vs. white matter is mobilized. I also know that men on average have larger brains than women (corrected for body size - insert joke about "doing more with less" here, please). But the final outcome of testing keeps showing the same thing: Men and women just aren't that different in terms of ability. Some slight advantages for men in visuospatial skills, some slight advantages for women in communications skills, but nothing that would make me think kids would benefit from only learning in same-sex groups.

Think about it in an evolutionary sense: We're a species that shows high social interaction and biparental care. This means that children in pre-industrial society would have had plenty of time to learn from both male and female role models, and lots of interaction with other children; most likely children of both sexes, as keeping children isolated into groups would be expensive in terms of time and resources. The idea that we'd be better off isolating children into sex-specific groups doesn't seem to have any merit in that regard. If it were advantageous to do so, we'd probably have been doing it for a really, really long time already.
posted by caution live frogs at 1:40 PM on February 29, 2008 [2 favorites]


When we implement gender segregation, can we also make children regiment themselves along lines of shoe size?

One of my kids is in special ed. Some days it feels as if the standards used to sort schoolchildren might as well be foot-size related -- they're just that logical.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:50 PM on February 29, 2008


Ideally, you teach individuals, not groups.

Also, before they go lurching around trying to "fix" education by segregating sexes, maybe they'd like to work on more immediate problems, like bulllying, first.
posted by jokeefe at 1:54 PM on February 29, 2008


I've seen some really cool functional MRI scans showing that men and women use their brains differently. Actual measured differences between how much gray vs. white matter is mobilized. I also know that men on average have larger brains than women (corrected for body size - insert joke about "doing more with less" here, please).

We have more in common than we have differently, as I used to tell my son. Because it's true.
posted by jokeefe at 1:56 PM on February 29, 2008


Is this to do with the crockus?
posted by Phanx at 2:22 PM on February 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


I also know that men on average have larger brains than women

everything i've read on that topic stresses that this has more to do with the fact that men are larger in general, and that the proportion on brain vs mass between the sexes is constant.


posted by cortex at 11:02 AM on February 29 [6 favorites -] Favorite added! [!]
posted by [son] QUAALUDE at 2:48 PM on February 29, 2008


Dr. Leonard Sax: asshat pseudoscience. Why are people so willing to believe crackpot claims about sex differences?
posted by cogneuro at 10:53 AM on February 29 [4 favorites +] You already made this a favorite. [!]


re: the link, i REALLY like the length that Mark Liberman goes to to thoroughly debunk the bunk. Publishing books based on conjecture based on data based on a test group of NINETEEN PEOPLE???

Thats pretty shameful.
posted by [son] QUAALUDE at 2:58 PM on February 29, 2008



How about just reducing class size so that all kids get more individualized attention? Oh wait, that would cost money. Nevermind.
posted by Maias at 2:59 PM on February 29, 2008 [2 favorites]


If any of those adjectives are absent, there are more pressing problems than catering to individual learning styles.

For the majority of children in this country it appears that not only are one or both of those adjectives absent, but that they're not likely to come back anytime soon. My interest is whether and how much can you patch those holes via an intrinsically better system?


caution live frogs:
I'm not talking about raw cognitive ability because I don't think it works that way.

My question is about process. Both genders may get to the same answers but it seems likely that they are doing so by different means - sometimes drastically - at a semantic level. If this is the case, then there are likely to be methods of teaching different subjects that are far more effective for one group versus the other.

This may seem minor, but taken over the entire education of an individual I strongly suspect the benefits from leveraging better methods would be profound.

More concerning to me, however, are behavioral differences that have a hormonal root. The traditional classroom is simply not an optimal learning environment for the overwhelming majority of young males, and I think we're starting to see that - all three of the teachers in just my immediate family have told me this multiple times, including one who is 'special needs' and works daily with boys sidelined for no other reason than their innate penchant for overactivity in the classroom.

Drugging them to fit the system is not the answer. Fitting the system to *them* is.
posted by Ryvar at 3:08 PM on February 29, 2008


There's also the fact that the whole endevor seems intractibly rooted in enforcing and encouraging gender stereotypes established back in the 1950's, which makes it seem frighteningly like those "cure teh gay" camps.
posted by sotonohito at 6:07 PM on February 29, 2008


I think people are talking past each other here because some are talking about male and female children in a pure, biological sense, while others are really talking about "male and female children in modern American society," which is an entirely different matter. Given all the genderizing social conditioning that goes on, it doesn't surprise me in the slightest that men and women might 'think differently' by the time they're adults or even young children, but that doesn't really mean that there's a very significant inherent difference. We're probably creating most of the difference through our own expectations.

Blaming what are almost certainly heavily socially-constructed differences on biology is practically the definition of reification.

Frankly, I'd rather expend energy on trying to eliminate or change gendered social expectations, rather than taking them on premise as fixed and unchanging and building an educational system around them.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:38 PM on February 29, 2008


Kadin:
I was talking about both of those, actually, which might be the source of some of the confusion.

To your point:
Realistically, you're not going to be able to change gendered social expectations within any kind of timeline that an individual can appreciate. There's no policy to dictate - sociological matters exist within a shared consensus reality that is remarkably resistant to any good-faith attempts to change it (remarkably less so with attempts made in bad faith).

The policies of our educational system, however, can be changed. We can do things, right now and within a timeframe that we can appreciate, about the shape of our educational system.
posted by Ryvar at 12:10 AM on March 1, 2008


Realistically, you're not going to be able to change gendered social expectations within any kind of timeline that an individual can appreciate. There's no policy to dictate - sociological matters exist within a shared consensus reality that is remarkably resistant to any good-faith attempts to change it (remarkably less so with attempts made in bad faith).

It seems to me that gender-segregated classrooms would only vastly increase gendered social expectations, especially with Sax' crazy ideas that "boys learn like this and girls learn like that". Kids who were very similar (as is my experience with 4 year old gender differences) but then placed in very different classroom settings for 12 years would come out very different. This sounds like a brilliant way to reinforce gender stereotypes at the very point where our society is finally starting to become comfortable with the idea that they're a bunch of crap.

What's to become of the kids who don't fit gender stereotypes in this setting? What about the boys who can sit in their seats and the girls who can't? Can they go to Sax' school that would be more appropriate to their learning style? Or are we just required to pretend that all kids are the same for the sake of the few boys who can't sit in their seats and have met confirmation bias of the popular press?
posted by hydropsyche at 3:25 AM on March 1, 2008


From the article:

One reason for this, Giedd says, is that when it comes to education, gender is a pretty crude tool for sorting minds. Giedd puts the research on brain differences in perspective by using the analogy of height. “On both the brain imaging and the psychological testing, the biggest differences we see between boys and girls are about one standard deviation. Height differences between boys and girls are two standard deviations.” Giedd suggests a thought experiment: Imagine trying to assign a population of students to the boys’ and girls’ locker rooms based solely on height. As boys tend to be taller than girls, one would assign the tallest 50 percent of the students to the boys’ locker room and the shortest 50 percent of the students to the girls’ locker room. What would happen? While you’d end up with a better-than-random sort, the results would be abysmal, with unacceptably large percentages of students in the wrong place. Giedd suggests the same is true when educators use gender alone to assign educational experiences for kids. Yes, you’ll get more students who favor cooperative learning in the girls’ room, and more students who enjoy competitive learning in the boys’, but you won’t do very well. Says Giedd, “There are just too many exceptions to the rule.”
posted by jb at 9:51 AM on March 1, 2008 [1 favorite]


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