ScienceSkepticism

#notallsciences

There’s an article over on The Curious Wavefunction blog titled “Neil DeGrasse Tyson makes an excellent point, but Larry Summers is still right.” I know we’re not supposed to judge a blog post by its title (that’s how that saying goes, right?), but I saw this and immediately thought to myself, “this couldn’t possibly be awful!”

Social psychologist Chris Martin fronts the post with a bit of Larry Summers apologia in the form of a nice long blockquote from Summers’ now-infamous 2005 talk in which he pondered on the reasons for a lack of women in academia. Despite the implication, that quote certainly was not the most problematic part of the talk, and I would beg to differ that Summers’ talk has been as misrepresented as Martin claims. Here, read the speech for yourself. I’m particularly fond of the part where Summers explains that his twin daughters were totes not socialized into normative feminine gender roles because they were given toy trucks by their parents!

Martin then brings up this awesome response by Neil deGrasse Tyson to “the Larry Summers question” (i.e., why aren’t there more women in science?):

Neil deGrasse Tyson responded to the question quite well, but since he’s not a social scientist, he wasn’t able to draw on psychological research on gender differences. His answer focused on stereotyping and self-fulfilling prophecy effect. I don’t blame him the slightest for lacking expertise in an area outside his specialty, but I do think people who only watch that video could come away with a misconception about the impact of stereotyping.

Actually, what Tyson’s answer focused on was not “stereotypes and self-fulfilling prophecy” but rather on his own experiences as a person of color going into science. For Martin to jump in here and basically say, “sorry Neil, but since you’re not an expert in social psychology, you’re unequipped to answer the Larry Summers question!” is beyond absurd. Tyson may not have expertise in social psychology, but he sure as hell has expertise in being a person of color in science, and I’ll take his experiences over Martin’s psychobabble any day!

Martin’s answer to the Larry Summers question boils down to #notallsciences. Instead of addressing the gender gap issues in science, Martin says, “I think we need to retire [the acronym] STEM” and talk about all the sciences. But “the sciences” is not the problem—it’s particular disciplines and areas within the sciences that have this problem.

First, let’s be really clear: the question at issue is why aren’t there more women in science? I think it’s important to take a moment to unpack this question: What’s being asked here is why are women underrepresented in certain scientific disciplines? When this question is asked, despite what Martin argues, the word “science” is being used as a gloss for the physical sciences, and sometimes this gloss includes other fields like engineering and other applied sciences. In other words, the question is really asking why there aren’t more women in STEM fields. When this question is asked, typically people are not referring to the social sciences, most of which have more women than men (though there is no lack of androcentrism!). It’s really pretty simple to see how this is the case: if I were to apply for funding for a cultural anthropology project from an organization that is funding STEM fields, my grant application would be rejected outright because cultural anthropology–a social science–is not considered to fall under the purview of STEM.

All it does is muddy the waters when Martin brings in gender ratios from a bunch of social sciences and “for simplicity” leaves off applied sciences like engineering. It does not actually address the spirit of the question being asked at all. Essentially, Martin’s post shifts the question from “why are women underrepresented in the “hard” sciences?” to “why are women underrepresented in all kinds of science, except applied sciences like engineering?” And, from there, Martin goes on to answer his own question by showing numbers from a variety of disciplines that do not support the notion that men outnumber women in the sciences, and therefore claims that Tyson was off base. But that’s not the question that is being discussed by Tyson.

As for Martin’s answer to his own question, it’s a bunch of the usual crap. He throws in some Steven Pinker and evolutionary psychology, making sure to point out how one of his sources is a feminist so her work couldn’t possibly be biased research. He also seems to rely solely on psychological research, despite the fact that we know much of it is extremely problematic in its generalized claims about human beings.

But none of that stops Martin from sharing a bunch of citations backing up sound scientific claims totally not-socialized ideas about women into the post:

Women, on average, don’t seem to be more interested in people per se, but rather they do seem more interested in the natural world. On average, they also have a stronger nurturing tendency than men, because through evolutionary history a non-trivial number of men abandoned their children, leaving women to raise their children. Although I’m just speculating here, this might explain why women show more interest in veterinary medicine than human medicine, animals being childlike in their behavior.

seems legit animated gif

h/t to Dr. Rubidium for sharing the article and Mindy for sharing the best gif ever!

Will

Will is the admin of Queereka, part of the Skepchick network. They are a cultural/medical anthropologist who works at the intersections of sex/gender, sexuality, health, and education. Their other interests include politics, science studies, popular culture, and public perceptions and understandings of anthropology. Follow them on Twitter at @anthrowill and Facebook at facebook.com/anthrowill.

Related Articles

22 Comments

    1. If that’s from the Daily Show episode I think it is, yes. The reporters went “on strike”, and Patrick Stewart showed up (originally facing away from the camera) as the token-English-correspondent strikebreaker.

  1. Somehow the moving goal posts never seem to bother them, either.
    Women shouldn’t read.They’ll get brain fever. It’s just the way they’re made. (Time passes, it’s clear there’s no brain fever)
    Women can’t attend the same schools as men. They just don’t think clearly. It’s biological. (Women fight to attend schools, prove they are capable)
    Well ok, but women aren’t cut out to be scientists. They’re just not analytical. All of them are emotional and all emotions belong to them. It’s natural. (Women enter science and medicine)
    Well sure they can be pediatricians and vets, ’cause they’re all nurturing, but they can’t be neurosurgeons, because evolution.
    Somehow it never strikes them that the only constant is some people complaining that others who have been successfully marginalized (not just women) don’t belong because of the immutable forces of nature.

  2. *claps* Well done! I’d like to add that a career in science can be intimidating. And even giving your child a chemistry set isn’t eliminating all racial and gender issues; everyone around them can make it just as tough. (Note the classic example of the science teacher who gives a child an F if the experiment doesn’t go exactly as planned. Note also that doing science involves explaining anomalous results. Finally, note that in poor and minority schools, you’re often lucky to even get lab materials.)

  3. Um… I have to admit that there was always one teeny tiny little problem I had with that clip of Tyson… there’s a woman sitting right next to him, and I feel like she maybe might have had a really good answer, too. To be fair, Ann Druyan isn’t exactly a scientist, but still…

    However, yes… Neil’s answer was frickin’ awesome and he was so right. And this Chris Martin guy? He can shut up.

  4. Seems like a bizarre way to interpret the situation on Martin’s part, he does seems to completely miss the point of Neil’s response and doesn’t seem to understand the core issue here. However, I don’t think that your negative take psychology as a whole is warranted, even if Martin is using it completely wrong. In fact, the psychological literature is very much in agreement with Neil and there is tons of research to the contrary of what Martin’s would have us believe. The fact that he relies on evolutionary and social psychology, arguable two of the weakest subfields in terms of quality science in psychology, should be warning enough.

    1. What do you mean my negative take on psychology as a whole? I didn’t have a negative take on psychology as a whole. I have a problem with how much of the psychological research that laid the foundation for universalist claims about “the human mind” is based on 50 undergraduates taking intro to psych in the US. Thus the link to the WEIRD article. Unless there’s some other aspect of the post that I’m not seeing where I made a negative claim about psychology as a whole?

      1. Hi Will, thanks for the reply. I’m referring to the following quote:

        “He also seems to rely solely on psychological research, despite the fact that we know much of it is extremely problematic in its generalized claims about human beings.”

        The WEIRD article is a really good one but I think your above statement was a bit too strong (or perhaps I’m reading too much into it).

        The WEIRD brings up great points, that largely focus on social and evolutionary psychology research but does not speak to the quality of psychological research as whole. In fact, some of the best evidence against the claims of the likes of Martin comes from psychologists that do research globally to see how various contextual factors influence different gender results.

        There is of course a lot of other research that drills down beyond cultural factors for actual human universals, which are rigorously tested with diverse samples and research that directly tries to study cultural differences in basic cognition. Does psychological research have faults? Sure, but I think saying it is “extremely problematic” is an overstatement.

        1. It sounds to me like you’re not really disagreeing with my critique, just that you think I’m being too forceful about it. I think it’s myopic for Martin (who is in a sociology program!) to only look at what psychology has to say about this topic, especially considering the critiques levied from other social scientists about some of the issues with sampling that are common practice in experimental psych. From an anthropologist’s perspective, the practice of looking at a few people in one place and time and generalizing to all humans is extremely problematic, and it’s unfortunately quite common in experimental psych. I don’t think psychology as a whole discipline is the problem, I think the methods that a lot of psychologists have used to arrive at conclusions about human universals is problematic. We will just have to agree to disagree about how extremely problematic those practices are.

  5. It’s interesting that the typical urge is to ask scientists these questions. Male scientists speculate about the answer; female scientists explain their experiences. Those scientists in the appropriate fields (sociology for instance) can offer studies and explanations of the studies regardless of gender.

    Has anyone ever thought to ask non-scientist women the question, “Why did you not go into science as a career?”

    1. I’ve heard answers to a similar question, where women are asked why did they go into a more female-friendly science versus another. Or as to why a woman went into science rather than engineering. The answers are exactly what one would expect.

      1. I’m sure they are. I’m not commenting on that.

        I’m saying that it’s interesting that the last group people think to ask, wrt why women don’t enter the sciences, or particular natural sciences, is the women who didn’t do that. I think that’s a reflection of two things: the cultural disregard in the United States for what women have to say, and a cultural disregard in academia and the sciences to disregard what non-academics and non-scientists have to say. A woman who is not a scientist? Clearly has nothing important to contribute to the discussion?

        I can imagine some of the responses, but it would be interesting if I didn’t have to guess.

        1. I’m not sure this is an entirely fair critique. Just thinking through the logistics of asking “women who didn’t go into science” why they did other things, that’s way too broad of a research question and way too nebulous of a group to get any meaningful data. It would need to be much more focused than that. Just as an example without thinking through the problematics too deeply, answers from women who never intended to enter science vs. women who intended to but decided not to would be entirely different sets of data to look at and would paint us different pictures. It is not right to make the assumption that all women want to go into science fields but choose not to–that some women do not go into science isn’t necessarily a problem. Not all women want to go into science.

          Further, in order for you to make the claim you’re making about a “cultural disregard” being the reason why people don’t ask that question, I think that’s something you’d need some data to support. I’m not sure that questions like that haven’t been asked, I’d have to do a literature review. And if they haven’t, you cannot simply assume that it’s due to a “cultural disregard” instead of some other issues such as methodological problems I mentioned above.

          Do women who chose not to go into science have something important to contribute to the discussion? Maybe, maybe not. It really does depend on which women you’re asking and what questions you’re asking them. But they certainly aren’t the only types of women we could ask questions to find out about the reasons why women don’t go into particular science fields.

          1. This may well be out there, but it would be interesting to interview women who entered and then left phd programs in the sciences. You could even look at those who were forced to leave (e.g. failed quals) versus those who chose (some of whom may have “chosen”) to not finish their research and dissertation. I think that in order to make it meaningful you’d have to look at other subject positions, as well. Something along these lines has probably been done?

          2. From a research standpoint, it would probably be most practical to approach this as a longitudinal study. Identify a representative sample of students starting at some point (perhaps high school, college freshmen, or first year graduate students, depending on the desired scope of the study) who express an intention to pursue science/math/engineering careers, then follow them over the next X years. For those that change career paths, survey them on their reasons for the change. Presumably this would be a more informative data set than just “women who didn’t go into science”. Of course longitudinal studies have the disadvantage of taking a really long time, but in this case I think you could actually learn a lot even from just the first five years or so. It would also be possible to include regular (annual? semiannual?) surveys aimed at assessing things like amount of material support, educational support, peer support, etc., that each person has for their chosen studies, which should help identify what factors at what times seem to play the greatest role in outcome disparities. I wonder if this study has been done?

          3. “It is not right to make the assumption that all women want to go into science fields but choose not to”

            I’m making no such assumption. What I am proposing is that many women didn’t even have science on their radar, because media, especially historically, did not present “scientist” as a valid career path for women.

            How could one tease that out? Perhaps by comparing the responses to the same question given by a matched male group.

            It would be interesting to compare the distribution of responses from, say, women who grew up in the 50s versus men who grew up in the 50s (with similar background) vs. women who grew up in the 80s (and men who grew up in the 80s).

            “I’m not sure that questions like that haven’t been asked, I’d have to do a literature review.”

            In the event that you do a literature review (and I’m not saying this is your responsibility) I’d be interested in the results. Because I have yet to see any such study but I would be fascinated by the results.

            “Do women who chose not to go into science have something important to contribute to the discussion? Maybe, maybe not. It really does depend on which women you’re asking and what questions you’re asking them.”

            Honestly, I think that the most frequent response would be, “A career in science just never crossed my radar,” and the interesting data would come from tracking the changes (if any) in the frequency of this response over time.

  6. What often gets lost in discussions of this kind is that even if the numbers all equal, that doesn’t necessarily indicate that discrimination has gone and utopia achieved. Just because there is a greater number of women in Medicine does not mean that women have it better in that field compared with say physics. As a male physician, I will say have heaps and heaps of greater privilege than women of equal standing in my field. I’ve seen shocking statistics on how women medical students and residents are graded compared with their male counterparts. Men are viewed as “hard working, efficient” whereas women are “kind, sensitive, people oriented” on grading. This is in settings wherein the number of women medical students outnumber men! The 50/50 should not be an end unto itself. We can have 50% Congress be women but what if they are all like Ann Coulter or Michelle Malkin? What needs to be solved are the gender biases (both conscious and unconscious) regardless of the 50/50 endpoint.

Leave a Reply

You May Also Enjoy

Close
Close