Thursday, May 12, 2005

gender and science

From edge.org (May 16th, 2005): a debate between Harvard psychology professors Steven Pinker and Elizabeth Spelke about gender and science. It's basically a nature vs. nurture argument, but they both have some fascinating insights. Here are some of my favorite excerpts:

Pinker, addressing those who refuse to consider that there might be biological gender differences at all:
But it is crucial to distinguish the moral proposition that people should not be discriminated against on account of their sex — which I take to be the core of feminism — and the empirical claim that males and females are biologically indistinguishable.

Men and women show no differences in general intelligence or g — on average, they are exactly the same, right on the money. Also, when it comes to the basic categories of cognition — how we negotiate the world and live our lives; our concept of objects, of numbers, of people, of living things, and so on — there are no differences. [...] Indeed, in cases where there are differences, there are as many instances in which women do slightly better than men as ones in which men do slightly better than women. For example, men are better at throwing, but women are more dexterous. Men are better at mentally rotating shapes; women are better at visual memory. Men are better at mathematical problem-solving; women are better at mathematical calculation.

Spelke, going even further:
I think the big forces causing this gap are social factors. There are no differences in overall intrinsic aptitude for science and mathematics between women and men. Notice that I am not saying the genders are indistinguishable, that men and women are alike in every way, or even that men and women have identical cognitive profiles. I'm saying that when you add up all the things that men are good at, and all the things that women are good at, there is no overall advantage for men that would put them at the top of the fields of math and science.

A somewhat controversial statement about gender variability from Pinker:
One other data set meeting the gold standard is displayed in this graph, showing the entire population of Scotland, who all took an intelligence test in a single year. The X axis represents IQ, where the mean is 100, and the Yaxis represents the proportion of men versus women. As you can see these are extremely orderly data. In the middle part of the range, females predominate; at both extremes, males slightly predominate.

Spelke, on gender and perception:
...when babies do something unambiguous, reports are not affected by the baby's gender. If the baby clearly smiles, everybody says the baby is smiling or happy. Perception of children is not pure hallucination. Second, children often do things that are ambiguous, and parents face questions whose answers aren't easily readable off their child's overt behavior. In those cases, you see some interesting gender labeling effects. For example, in one study a child on a video-clip was playing with a jack-in-the-box. It suddenly popped up, and the child was startled and jumped backward. When people were asked, what's the child feeling, those who were given a female label said, "she's afraid." But the ones given a male label said, "he's angry." Same child, same reaction, different interpretation. [...] I think these perceptions matter. You, as a parent, may be completely committed to treating your male and female children equally. But no sane parents would treat a fearful child the same way they treat an angry child.

There were effects at the tenure level as well. At the tenure level, professors evaluated a very strong candidate, and almost everyone said this looked like a good case for tenure. But people were invited to express their reservations, and they came up with some very reasonable doubts. For example, "This person looks very strong, but before I agree to give her tenure I would need to know, was this her own work or the work of her adviser?" Now that's a perfectly reasonable question to ask. But what ought to give us pause is that those kinds of reservations were expressed four times more often when the name was female than when the name was male.

Spelke making an important distinction:
Biological sex differences are real and important. Sex is not a cultural construction that's imposed on people. [...] But the question on the table is not, Are there biological sex differences? The question is, Why are there fewer women mathematicians and scientists?

I admit I'm especially interested because I took Intro to Psych with Pinker and Developmental Psych with Spelke, while they both were still at MIT.

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