Greater biological variability cannot explain differences in opportunity

You’ve probably heard this story many times before: there’s some kind of glass ceiling in the world of science and math that hinders women’s ability to progress. The latest data confirms that something is going wrong.

The United States ranks 31st on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index and is tied for 21st on Social Watch’s Gender Equity Index. Still, the test scores of U.S. high school girls have reached parity with those of boys, and half the undergraduate math degrees awarded in this country go to women.

But after that, something goes off the rails. Just 27% of math Ph.D.s go to women. Exactly the same percentage — 27% — of people with careers in science, technology, mathematics, and engineering (STEM) fields are women. Women constitute a very similar number — 30% — of STEM college professors.

This is a problem, and not just from an equality standpoint, says math professor Rebecca Goldin, an associate professor of mathematics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and director of research at the university’s Statistical Assessment Service. “Scientific and mathematical progress relies on the best people doing their best work,” she says. “If you discourage half the population [from doing science], then that part is simply not in your pool of who’s the best, so the best science doesn’t happen.”

Now cue the apologists. The most common explanation I hear for the disparity, over and over again, is that it’s an accurate reflection of ability: men do better at the higher ranks of science and math because they have better brains. And the most frequent rational for that is the greater male variability hypothesis: the bell curve of performance for women is better tuned to achieve a greater likelihood of median ability, while men are more erratic — they produce more damaged, faulty brains than do women, but at the same time, they produce more brilliant brains. The male population exhibits greater extremes.

This has never made any sense to me.

There are deleterious traits which men have at higher frequency than women: color blindness, for instance, or hemophilia. The explanation for those is that they’re X-linked, so males are hemizygous and when they carry a defective allele are less likely to carry a complementary healthy allele at that locus. There is also a known higher incidence for objectively measurable mental defects in males vs. females, diagnosable at birth. Again, the likely explanation is that hemizygosity for all those loci on the X chromosome makes males more vulnerable to developmental and genetic errors.

But how does this lead one to conclude that the greater variability should lead to greater beneficial variability? An expansion of the left tail of the distribution does not imply that there has to be an equivalent expansion of the right tail. For example, males also exhibit greater infant mortality in females. There is no compensatory reduction of male mortality in old age. The mortality curve shifts left for us men; it didn’t broaden to give those of us who made it to middle age an advantage over women in our cohort to reach greater old age.

And I note that there is never any specific explanation of a mechanism that would allow greater variability to promote greater intelligence in males. There is much flapping of hands over the greater male frequency of autism, reading disorders, juvenile delinquency, etc. (all true), and then a dangling “therefore…” leading to the conclusion that there must be compensatory intellectual benefits for men. It’s basically little more than an appeal to the belief that the universe must be fair, and must grant us guys as a population a benefit to make up for the bad deal we get as babies.

Guess what? The universe isn’t fair.

It is conceptually possible that the universe could have screwed over the females or the males of our species. We know, for instance, that human physiology carries specific mechanisms that increase male body size over that of women; you could imagine a species in which there was a similar coupling of hormones to brain growth, and in a science fiction world you could imagine a race with great gender disparities in intelligence. That doesn’t seem to be our world, though, and it also wouldn’t make sense to explain such a phenomenon by greater noisy variation. But you can’t explain that possibility away by saying it wouldn’t be fair for our biology to so discriminate against one sex: again, the universe isn’t fair.

You have to look at the data. And the data all seem to be saying that men and women who make it to the point of entering the academic world have roughly equal intellectual potential, and that the differences between them are shaped by sociocultural influences, not biology.

To analyze some of the theories put forth for the math gender gap, Kane and Mertz looked at internationally standardized scores for the 2003 and 2009 OECD Program for International Student Assessment math tests and the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. These two datasets include data from 86 countries with a 31-country overlap. If the greater male variability hypothesis, which posits that men have a greater range of intelligence than women, is true, then that variability would persist, consistently, across all 86 countries.

Instead, “For any given country, you quite reproducibly measure the same variance ratio,” Mertz says. But between countries the variance ratio changes. Persistent cultural factors, in other words, seem very important in setting variance ratios. “That was one thing that really shocked me,” Mertz says.

Some scholars have speculated that coeducational schools put women at a disadvantage in learning math. But Mertz and Kane’s research found that gender-segregated schools make no difference in improving math scores for girls or boys.

And while the test scores of children from the poorest countries were affected by poverty, all correlation with per capita GDP ends at $11,500. After that, gender equity — as measured by the World Economic Forum and Social Watch — is the only factor they studied that’s positively correlated with improved test scores for girls and for boys. “It’s very reproducible from exam to exam,” Mertz says. “If we were willing to speculate, one thing the U.S. might do to improve math performance would be to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act and the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”

Well, changing a few laws isn’t necessarily going to change people’s attitudes, so I’d disagree with her there. But as a reflection of deeper problems in how we perceive science and math and women and men, yes, she has a point.

Mertz cites a shirt famously removed from racks at the American retail clothing chain Forever 21 earlier this year as an example of the unhealthy attitude towards math in U.S. culture. The shirt said, simply, “Allergic to Algebra.”

“‘Allergic to Algebra’?” Mertz says. “This is what’s being sold in the U.S. in 2011? Whereas there’s a book in Japan [for teenage girls] called Math Girls. That book is essentially an introduction to topics you would see as a hardcore math major in college, and this is a bestseller in Japan. It’s in its 18th printing; they’ve had three sequels. Can you imagine that in the U.S.?”

There is no denying that the most important factor contributing to academic performance is cultural, not biological. Biology sets the limits, but culture determines what you do within those boundaries, and clearly, we have lots of room for improvement in intellectual accomplishment; most people aren’t bumping up against the physical limitations of what their brains can do. What we should be doing is looking at our people, and trying to do better. Less than 30% of the professoriate are women? That doesn’t say women aren’t as smart, it should be seen as missed potential, and we should be working harder to give every man and woman equal access to the chance to excel. 65% of men and 72% of women graduate from high school? Let’s figure out what’s holding the men back and fix it.

The great crime here is when people try to claim that these differences are hardwired and nothing can or should be done about them. Brains are plastic to a degree that makes minor potential differences between sexes and races negligible.

(Also on FtB)

Gals and show mares

This video has been going around — it’s a group of women talking about the importance of evolution to the biological sciences.

I confess to cringing in a few places — there’s too much ready equation of evolution with natural selection — but I certainly wouldn’t question the competence of these accomplished scientists, even if I might argue with them a bit.

But now the clowns at Uncommon Descent have discovered it and given their assessment.

It shows sixteen female academics or science writers, mostly young, whose enthusiasm for evolution is so overwrought that they turn themselves into propagandists.

Eager to show how well they have been trained, they are like show mares who trot around the paddock jumping over each gate in turn. All the while they give the camera a look that says: “Aren’t I good?”

And then the conclusion:

Here, we’d wondered who would be the next Lynn Margulis. Our scouts can now save time by crossing these gals off.

“Gals”? Really? And since when do creationist hacks get to cross “gals” off the rolls of worthy scientists?

That’s right there in the article. There is worse in the comments; I know the site isn’t entirely responsible for what commenters say, but this is from one widely known freakish creationist who agrees with the sentiment in the article, that these women won’t cut it as real scientists. (There are also others that disagree with this guy; no one seems to have noted the patronizing attitude of the article itself.)

There is however a liberal establishment with a agenda to promote women and this means over more deserving men. Affirmative action , openly/secret, is powerful in nOrth america.
They want women to be as smart as men in these perceived smarter things.
They think it should be at least 50/50.
However it ain’t and it never will.

(Also on FtB)

Why are boys and men underperforming?

In this TED video, Philip Zimbardo talks about an ongoing concern, the opting out of boys from academically and socially — boys are more likely to drop out of school, girls outperform boys at all academic levels, boys are 5 times more likely to be diagnosed with ADD. The difference also leads to many man-boys who can’t interact with women except on the most superficial and cartoonish level.

He’s talking about a real problem, but I was not convinced by his explanation. He attributes it to a phenomenon called arousal addiction, where people are hooked on constant stimulation of any kind, and he blames it on the internet, video games, and porn. I get very suspicious when anyone starts talking about the internet rewiring our brains (Susan Greenfield, anyone?) because a) I haven’t seen any persuasive data that it’s a serious and significant, let alone deleterious phenomenon, and b) everything rewires our brains — we respond to experience.

This talk has a serious flaw in that the first half is all about statistics and differences between males and females, and the second half is all about a putative general phenomenon that changes our brains…but it doesn’t say anything anymore about the differences between males and females. Women aren’t excluded from the internet — they get sucked into social media, they play video games, they even watch porn. So how does this explain the declining performance of men in schools and social situations?

(Also on FtB)

And now for something completely different

Or is it? I’ve just been introduced to the work of Tim Wise, and it’s fabulous stuff: all about how we view race through the distorting lenses of denial and privilege and class. He’s a terrific speaker, I guarantee you that it’s worth your time to take an hour and listen to this lecture.

Oh, yeah, a white guy lecturing on race…shouldn’t we be listening to a person of color on these issues? Of course we should, but if you just listen to the first five minutes you’ll get his confession: there’s an esthetic to who people will listen to, and the neatly groomed white man is right at the top of the list. Deeper in, one interesting point he makes is that the use of the word “underprivileged” is endemic, but “overprivileged” isn’t even in the dictionary (hey, he’s right, too: as I wrote that, my convenient electronic spellcheck highlighted the word with a red underscore. I must have made a mistake…that concept doesn’t exist).

People are selfish bastards. If you have privilege — and I do to a high degree — it’s always a tendency to cling to it and hold it tightly to ourselves and rationalize our entitlements, which perpetuates the divisions. The “underprivileged” aren’t the source of the problem, it’s the overprivileged who work constantly to maintain our position. We are the problem. To think that we can tell the oppressed that it’s their responsibility to fix their problem is doubly wrong: it’s our responsibility to fix our problem.

(Also on FtB)

A feminist embarrassment

I cringed reading this woman’s lament that evolutionary biology is responsible for the oppression of women, starting with Darwin. It’s one long colossal failure of logic.

The argument has some genuinely true facts embedded in it, which then get spun out into a series of false conclusions. It is true that the Victorian gentlemen who formulated and expanded upon the theory of evolution tended to be 19th century chauvinists who made up stories about the inferiority of the feminine mind, and Darwin was right among them. It is also true that there are contemporary biologists who still make up similar stories and engage in blatant retrofitting of the data to rationalize sexism or racism (Satoshi Kanazawa comes to mind as one of the most egregious examples).

But don’t confuse cause and effect! Sexism predated evolutionary theory, and is a product of the wider culture. And creationism, most obviously, is extremely sexist, with its predefined gender roles and gender-based assignment of blame for the entirety of our wicked nature. To single out a late 19th century scientific theory and accuse it of promoting a deplorable cultural attitude that was both present before the theory was discovered, and present to an even greater degree in the individuals who strongly opposed the theory, is ridiculous in the extreme, and embarrassingly stupid.

But I’m not done. The entirety of the edifice of her logic is built on exactly one essay, one attack on evolution, by one guy. And that guy is the rabid squirrel of creationism, Jerry Bergman.

Bergman is so awful, so incompetent, so dishonest, that citing him in any way in support of your position (let alone allowing his lying slander of Darwin be the sole source) instantly discredits anything you might say. It says you have no discernment or capability of critical evaluation of your sources.

I’m sorry to say that the taint of incompetence has now also spread to Loretta Kemsley.

(Also on FtB)

Stuff that annoyed me this morning

There’s nothing wrong about being pretty, or sexy, or shopping, or being interested in traditionally girly things—but there is a big problem when that’s the only option you’re given. I know I’d be stressed if I were constantly told I’m less of a man if I’m not playing football or working in a manly occupation that involved large wrenches and heavy industrial tools, so I can sympathize with the limited choices given women: oh, you aren’t wearing a bikini on your lithe body with the large breasts? Then you’re an ugly dyke. You aren’t planning a career as a homemaker and mother? You just want to be a man.

So let’s socialize the little girls early, and start them on video games with good role models: slender women obsessed with clothes and boyfriends.


Read the description. It’s appallingly shallow. It makes me want to run out and buy John Madden’s football video game, so I can learn what it takes to be a True Man.

That’s one side of the problem: pressure to conform to a ridiculously narrow set of values. Here’s the other: the absence of support and recognition when you try to pursue other better, greater interests.

There’s just something wrong with our society. Women, get out there and fix it, OK?

(Also on FtB)

Someday, maybe social media will apply their rules consistently

Remember when Facebook started censoring the pages of breastfeeding women? They were removing photos that showed…nipple. It was a violation of the TOS! If they didn’t hold the line on nudity, they were on a slippery slope to open pornography. Think of the children! And most importantly, they were enforcing a consistent policy that simply banned all nudity without judgment about its purpose or context.

The situation has a apparently changed in 2011. Now there are crass Facebook pages filled with crude jokes about rape, and that’s all right despite the fact that they do plainly violate the TOS, that states “You will not post content that: is hateful, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence.” Is rape not hateful? Is it not threatening? Is it not violent?

Have no fear, Facebook has a rationalization. Rape is a joke.

Facebook’s initial response to the public outcry was to suggest that promoting violence against women was equivalent to telling a rude joke down the pub: “It is very important to point out that what one person finds offensive another can find entertaining” went the bizarre rape apologia. “Just as telling a rude joke won’t get you thrown out of your local pub, it won’t get you thrown off Facebook.”

Does breastfeeding a baby get you thrown out of a pub? Shouldn’t joking about rape be more likely to get you thrown out? (I know,it isn’t).

Personally, I don’t think Facebook should censor the rape pages: they’re awful and shameful, but it’s good to see that the hateful morons are out there so you can guard against them. I’d rather that social media were open and that they allowed all — they simply shouldn’t be in the business of monitoring user-created content.

But Facebook has gone the other way. They are regulating what people are allowed to say, and they are creating a culture in which a bare breast is obscene and disgusting, while violent sexual assault is considered amusing. It isn’t that they allow rape jokes, it’s that they’ve exposed themselves as two-faced and untrustworthy, and are actively promoting an environment in which men have carte blanche and women are targets, and had better like it.

(Also on FtB)

What is wrong with these animal rights organizations?

There is a severe and disturbing disconnect in the minds of the fanatics behind the animal rights groups. First there’s NIO, harassing and threatening students. Now look at what PETA is up to: they plan to launch a porn site to benefit their cause.

The nonprofit organization, whose controversial campaigns draw criticism from women’s rights groups, said it hopes to raise awareness of veganism through a mix of pornography and graphic footage of animal suffering.

“We’re hoping to reach a whole new audience of people, some of whom will be shocked by graphic images that maybe they didn’t anticipate seeing when they went to the PETA triple-X site,” said Lindsay Rajt, PETA’s associate director of campaigns.

I am trying to visualize the kind of people who would be drawn to a site featuring naked women and tortured animals…and no, those aren’t the people I’d want to associate with. It sounds like it might be popular with serial killers, anyway. Is that the audience they want?

And then there’s this:

PETA has been accused of campaigning for animal rights at the cost of exploiting women. A Facebook group, Real Women Against PETA, was launched after the organization paid for a billboard showing an obese woman with the message: “Save the Whales. Lose the Blubber. Go Vegetarian.”

They are sending a consistent message, at least. They love kittens. They hate women.

(Also on FtB)

No Jerry, no cure

We’re finally rid of Jerry Lewis and his smarmy, condescending sponsorship of a telethon for muscular dystrophy. I think he meant well, but he had the wrong ideas: this article celebrating his absence makes a significant point. There are many diseases for which there can be no cure short of magically rebuilding entire bodies and brains — that is, no cure short of changing essentially the entirety of who the person is.

All that money was supposed to find what Jerry called “a cure.” Every year he said “We’re closer than ever to a cure.” But every doctor and nurse will tell you the same thing: there is no cure. In the program for the 2011 annual meeting of the Muscular Dystrophy Coordinating Committee, the word “cure” does not appear.

What people with the disability need is help with their symptoms and with mobility. Their quality of life can be improved, their symptoms can be reduced. They also need “accessible public transportation and housing, employment opportunities and other civil rights that a democratic society should ensure for all its citizens.” That’s what Mike Ervin says–he calls himself “a renegade Jerry’s Kid” who was an official telethon poster child in the 1960s.

That’s not a message of hopelessness. To the contrary, it’s saying there are positive improvements that can be made that don’t involve relegating the disabled to the rubbish bin of ‘God’s mistakes’.

(Also on FtB)

A Y chromosome is worth the same as a Ph.D.

I’m glad I’ve got one, and I’m so proud that my worth is enhanced by my testicles, as this report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce shows.


The findings are stark: Women earn less at all degree levels, even when they work as much as men. On average, women who work full-time, full-year earn 25 percent less than men, even at similar education levels. At all levels of educational attainment, African Americans and Latinos earn less than Whites.

I have to thank Carl Zimmer for bringing that to my attention — when he isn’t writing about parasites and viruses, he also dabbles in other heartwarming subjects, like this.

(Also on FtB)