Once again, we get stupid answers to a good question. A a guest post on the Curious Wavefunction decides that Larry Summers was right, there are innate differences between men and women. (Curiously, this is the same blog that posted a positive review of Nicholas Wade’s book — strange how sympathy for racism and sexism go hand in hand). It starts off well by pointing out a real phenomenon, the different sex ratios found in different scientific disciplines.
Here are statistics on the sex ratio among graduate students. The order here is by level of analysis (with computer science thrown in somewhat arbitrarily next to physics). The first number is men; the second number is women.
Physics: 1694: 448
Computer Science: 1465: 380
Chemistry: 1520: 897
Anthropology: 186: 360:
Sociology: 230: 400
Political Science: 422: 303
Why is that, you might wonder…and of course, the answer we’re going to get is that there’s something about the Y chromosome or the hormonal environment that predisposes one to like computers vs. cells, or experiments with lab rats vs. electronic gadgets. Which, simply on the face of it, is complete bullshit.
I’ve noticed that these arguments often prefer to show a current snapshot of the statistics to make their point: looking at historical trends tends to screw up their assertion of a biological difference. A century ago, virtually none of these disciplines had a preponderance of women enrolled in them, and women professors were extremely rare. I guess there has been a remarkable degree of selection extinguishing all those stupid women from the population in the last 100 years. It’s simply not possible that cultural factors might strongly influence the pattern.
Similarly, we could ask questions about aptitude. Women just don’t like those disciplines with low female enrollment, because ladybrains. But how do we account for historical shifts in ability? Look what’s going on in the British school system.
The relative improvement in girls’ performance in examinations at 16 has been achieved over the last ten years. In the l960s, boys outperformed girls by about 5%; for the next fifteen years, boys and girls were performing at almost equivalent levels. However, from 1987 only about 80 boys to every hundred girls achieved 5 high grade passes at 16+. Boys lost their advantage in terms of school leaving credentials and are now struggling to keep up to girls’ success rate. In the mid l980s, girls turned the tide of credentialism, even at least temporarily, in their favour.
Oddly, no one seems willing to advance the bold hypothesis that maybe boys’ genes and hormones make them less scientific. It’s always the other way around, that women are less capable, because ladyparts…even in defiance of the evidence that women are performing better than men.
OK, well I promised we’d have some good questions. I lied. This guy asks stupid questions.
This brings us to two related questions: Why is the percentage of women somewhat proportional to the “socialness” of the science?
WHAT THE HELL…? Look at the list up above. Can you tell me which of those disciplines is more “social” than the others? Science in every discipline is an extremely social enterprise — if you’re going to succeed in it, you have to be able to engage with your colleagues, present your work publicly, collaborate, teach, and work in committees. If you think you can crawl into a basement and do computer science without bathing for 5 years, well, you can…but you won’t get a job afterwards, and you won’t be able to be a significant team member. Really, I know computer scientists. They do bathe regularly, and they can be friendly and engaging.
This assumption is a classic example of circular reasoning. Women are more social; some disciplines have more women than men; therefore, biology must be more social than physics; and the evidence for that is that biology has a higher proportion of women graduate students than physics. Ta-daa. QED. Guys win.
And why don’t women choose academic careers after they finish graduate school? To answer these questions, it’s worth looking at Steven Pinker’s contribution to the post-Larry Summers debate at Harvard.
Wait. That’s a different question, and it’s informative that the distinction isn’t addressed. Women are succeeding in greater numbers in graduate school than they are in post-doctoral careers. That’s revealing! By getting through graduate school, which is a pain-in-the-ass and a major sacrifice of time and money, these women have already shown a strong interest and ability in science. They are full-on dedicated scientists.
What’s the difference in the transition from life as a graduate student to the professoriate? More expectations for teaching, networking, committee work, grant writing, and collaboration. More of those “social” skills we’ve just been told women are naturally better at. As usual, none of this argument makes any sense, and consists entirely of sloppy attempts to rationalize prior biases.
We are promised evidence that women are simply less suited to working in science. Let’s see the list.
The full debate is also worth reading in full—and I apologize for giving Elizabeth Spelke, Pinker’s opponent, short shrift here–but this is Pinker’s summary of the psychological differences between men and women:
1. Men, on average, prioritize status, while women weigh status and family equally.
2. Women, on average, are more interested in people; men are more interested in things and abstract rule systems.
3. Men are by far the more reckless sex.
4. Men, on average, have a superior ability to do three-dimensional mental transformations.
5. Men, on average, are superior at mathematical reasoning.
6. Men have more variability than women across traits, which means that men are over-represented in the upper and lower tails of ability distributions.
Jebus. Those are just assertions. Who says women don’t “prioritize” status? How was that measured? Do women just sit around content to be egalitarian? Has anyone considered the possibility that status-seeking is going to be entirely culture dependent, and that there are different ways for different people to achieve high status? (I know they have, but those complexities are always jettisoned by the advocates for male superiority — the parameters of male dominance are naturally and obviously the only ones that matter, and they are objectively independent of societal constraints.)
I’m not going to was time going through these bald assertions one by one, but let me just say, they don’t apply. We’re already looking at a fairly rarefied subset of human endeavor occupied by people of largely above average socio-economic status, from families with an already above average emphasis on education. You can’t derive the properties of an already select subset from generalizations about the population as a whole, or you’d have to conclude that most scientists are blue-collar and service workers. We already know that there are strong cultural and familial influences that bias some women to pursue careers in science — factors that are not present for most women. Or most men. So even if their generalizations about the abilities of women were valid on the whole (and I don’t agree that they are; #2, 4, and 5 are clearly influenced by social conditioning, and #3 is statistically true but again probably influenced by social expectations), you simply can’t use them to talk about a small population that is both self-selected and strongly constrained by socioeconomic opportunities.
But #6…oh, #6, how I despise you, and how I constantly hear it trotted out as a justification. Look at the structure of that argument. We can clearly show that more men than women have mental disabilities and illness, therefore, we should expect that more men should show a greater range of high intelligence.
WHY? That makes no sense. It’s some kind of weird appeal to statistical fairness — that for some reason, Nature must balance every curse with a blessing, that every curve must be a perfectly symmetrical bell shape. But that is not true. There is no reason to expect it to be true.
It’s also selectively applied. I noted up top that the same people who argue for differences in intellectual aptitude between the sexes also like to argue for differences in intellectual aptitude between races. Yet for some reason, you’ll never see them suggest that since black people have a higher frequency of criminals and ignorant, uneducated men (I’d suggest that poverty and discrimination play a strong role in that, but you know these guys — they say it’s objective evidence of genetic inferiority), they must therefore also have a greater proportion of saints and geniuses in their populations.
It would be only fair, you know. Everything has to balance.
Or we never see this interesting proposal: malnutrition also increases the variability in a population. Therefore, if we want more supergeniuses, we should starve children — sure, we’d get a lot of death and illness, but the ones who thrive are going to be tough and brilliant.
I find myself endlessly exasperated by these transparently stupid justifications. They aren’t even internally consistent.