Monday, August 21, 2006

Mismeasuring

I'm a little behind in the news, so I just recently read "The mismeasure of woman" in the Economist
http://www.economist.com/science/displaystory.cfm?story_id=7245949.
It's interesting to read about research into gender differences in terms of brain function and other 'objective' measures of male vs. female abilities in terms of spatial reasoning, vocabulary, and things like that. The rather detailed article has a rather disturbing ending though. The article concludes that the difference between male and female brains isn't so great, and therefore that female brains could be *educated* in a different way to acquire better skills for succeeding in math, science, engineering. OK.. The article was focused on brain research and not the culture of science, but even so, anyone who has survived the current system of discrimination and harassment knows that it's going to take more than spatial reasoning exercises in elementary school to help females succeed in math/science/engineering. I think it would be great if more people had skills for succeeding in science etc., but can't help but think that the most dramatic changes need to occur in the system rather than in female brains.

5 comments:

iGollum said...

Yes, that actually sounds a bit condescending. Or am I just paranoid?

bsci said...

While I think the neuroscience of gender differences are real, what I find most amusing is the assumption of how it affects academics. The assumption that is always taken for granted is that academia is filled with people who are supremely intellectually superior to people in other professions. Only then can the extreme tail hypothesis for male superiority in academics make sense. In reality, many sucessful scienctists are smart, but no where near those extremes. In fact, many of the best and most respected academics have a balance of the stereotypically male and female traits, which are necessary to run a small business (i.e. a research lab).

Until I see a study that shows intellectual skills with huge gender differences, none of these results apply to sucess in academia.

FemaleCSGradStudent said...

My brain is just fine, thank you. How bout we tell that professor that kissed my neck to do some "spatial exercises."

Dr. Shellie said...

The ending was very strange-- what is this throwaway line: "one programme to teach spatial ability improved the retention rate of women in engineering courses from 47% to 77%"? How do they know that teaching spatial ability was really the cause of increased retention, rather than say the formation of study groups by women taking the course, or women students' increased interactions with professors through this curriculum, or any number of other factors? Sloppy thinking on their part.

Ms.PhD said...

I don't think the neuroscience of gender differences are real at all.

Having read a little bit about cognition, and having studied a bit of neuroscience, I think all the studies are fatally flawed- and most of them are extremely biased.

In most cases, the authors make outrageous assumptions about their test subjects and what their test is actually measuring.

For example, having read a few of these, I strongly suspect that no one has actually bothered to measure the testosterone levels of mothers as well as their male and female fetuses periodically up through adulthood and correlated the number and degree of ups and downs (let's call it level of T) with achievement. Until someone does that, I'm not convinced testosterone has anything to do with it.

The thing about the monkeys and the toys is puzzling, though. Are we just monkeys who wear clothing, as that one commercial points out so amusingly on tv? I doubt it. I also studied some anthropology once upon a time, and I'm thoroughly convinced by cultural comparisons that culture influences everything. See note above about biases among the so-called scientific studies.

One thing I know for sure is, I'm definitely an outlier. And while some might argue that it has given me some advantages (I do have a PhD, after all), scoring well above average on various kinds of tests certainly hasn't propelled me directly into a faculty position. Despite good old Larry Summers wanting to talk about it as such, I don't think mental ability has anything to do with whether you get hired into the Ivory Tower.