Gender and Science — Again!

Let’s dive right back in, hm? 

Check out this New York Times article about one scientist’s view on the whole “Where are all the female scientists” debate. In the interview, Dr. Ben A. Barres discounts hypotheses that men and women may possess inate differences that give each differing skill sets, calling such ideas “sexist opinions.” Dr. Barres goes on to blame society’s bias against women as the primary problem.

Dr. Barres has an impressive number of degrees and is currently a neuroscientist — however, the main reason why he was profiled in this interview is because he used to be a she. Because he got to experience life from both perspectives, he has a unique viewpoint on how one’s gender affects the way he or she is treated in the scientific community.

Dr. Barres makes a few good points about bias, such as:

People are still arguing over whether there are cognitive differences between men and women. If they exist, it’s not clear they are innate, and if they are innate, it’s not clear they are relevant. They are subtle, and they may even benefit women.

He also highlights the importance of providing women with adequate childcare options in order to encourage more of them to take tenure. However, at no point does he justify calling a very reasonable hypothesis — that women and men have differing innate cognitive abilities — a sexist opinion. In the quote above, one can even assume that he is saying that it is possible they exist, and it’s possible they are innate, and it’s possible they are relevant. He actually puts forth the idea that they “may even benefit women.” How is it not sexist to guess that perhaps innate cognitive differences may benefit women, yet it is sexist to suggest that those differences may benefit men? Can someone say . . . bias?

Obviously, people like Dr. Barres have a unique perspective on gender and society, but come on. It benefits no one to needlessly label honest scientific inquiry as sexist. I, for one, only hope that no matter what we find out about neurological differences between the sexes, we eventually establish a society that allows people of either sex to pursue their dreams without prejudice.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. Political Correctness seriously needs to die off. There's no virtue in being politically incorrect for its own sake, mind you, but there is never a justification for denying something truthful. Not ever.

    Now, in the specific case of cognitive differences between men and women… maybe the differences don't exist. That's entirely possible. But the right thing to do is make an honest inquiry, study the matter, and *find out for sure*. That's what science is about. Not to take this argument from final consequences and say, "This conclusion is offensive, so we'll ignore it, even if it's true." That's stupid, and it's not scientific. It's exactly the kind of thinking you see in theists, UFO believers, homeopaths, etc. It's not the attitude a scientist should have.

    And the idea of cognitive differences between men and women does not really harm us at all. It does not prevent us from having compassion or a sense of fairness. Because, after all, the science can only study *groups*. We can acknowledge differences between groups without pigeonholing *individuals* based on what rough group they're in, especially when presented with contrary evidence about an individual. The opposite idea is the equivalent of asking a man with no legs to walk: he's human, after all, and everybody knows that all humans can walk! Nobody would seriously do that, and likewise nobody would seriously doubt that a woman could attain the same level of intellectual achievement as a man, even if we were presented with solid evidence of cognitive differences.

    And then we come to the whole idea of a cognitive difference itself. It's utterly neutral. There is no value judgement in the idea that men and women have brains that operate differently. People tend to assume a value judgement simply because of a dark tradition that we've largely grown past; in effect, we're projecting that the values of the past which stated that men are "better" than women to mean that any discovered difference between men and women automatically implies that the women are defective. It's based on the concept of Man as a human ideal that simply doesn't exist in the rational, civilised world anymore. It simply indicates a failure to move on from a battle that has basically already been won. But if we require absolute, undifferentiated physical and mental equality in order to extend compassion and equality of opportunity… well, that's a pretty fragile victory, wouldn't you say? That mindset creates a situation where any small threat to complete *sameness* between individuals destroys the entire foundations of our society. I don't think that's desireable at all.

    Far better to acknowledge that actual differences, in the aggregate view, may well exist, but that they don't change the things that we value: equality of opportunity, compassion for our fellow humans, and freedom from prejudice. The truth, whatever it is, will never change those values. So why saddle ourselves with the burden of proving, even if it's wrong, that all types of human are exactly the same in every way? We don't need to do that. We can accept innate difference of all kinds *without* giving up any of the wonderful advancements that we've made in the past 200+ years of civil rights struggles, and preserve intellectual honesty in the process.

    So why not? Why squash science that's drawing uncomfortable conclusions, when we can instead accept the truth as it is, whatever it is, while still holding on to the values we cherish? Or, put another way, what good is a value system that requires willing blindness to facts? Shouldn't we test our values against the truth, and the values that survive are the worthy ones?

  2. bug_girl: The data, as often is the case with these public rows, isn't the issue here. The issue is that a man drew a conclusion from the data he had in an honest attempt to solve a problem and was not only fired but practicaly burned at the stake for it. And the greater issue is whether we can tolerate unpopular conclusions in the presence of mixed data.

    The only difference between Dr. Barres and the rest of Larry Summers' public opponents is, as you implied, that he is transgendered. Sadly, this is in fact the only reason his statements are available to any of us. That's just the way "news" works these days.

    As an aside, I posted my above comment, along with a brief preamble, on another site. Um, it's basically a blog, but it doesn't exactly cover skeptical issues most of the time, as will be obvious from a glance at the front page. ;) Un-super-fortunately, there is no comment function there.

  3. I read that comment more as a comment that its an assumption if differences do exist, that they will benefit men rather than women?

    Ie there are multiple factors, cognitive differences could be in the mix, but for all we know they act as a protective factor, a negative factor or an irrelevant factor in regards to women in science.

    Ie it leaves it as an open question what direction its in, rather than assuming a directionality as a starting point? That would seem less biassed to me rather than starting from a ‘maybe men are naturally smarter’ position.

  4. As a woman scientist, i really strongly disagree with you here Becca. (and have each time the issue comes up on the blog. :)
    The data on different -abilities- between the sexes is mixed, at best. The data on the many ways women are at a disadvantage -socially- is pretty good.

    BTW, just this week a paper was published about the gender gap:

    R. Jagsi et al., “The ‘Gender Gap’ in Authorship of Academic Medical Literature-A 35-Year Perspective,” N. Engl. J. Med.355:281-7, 2006

    summary: things got better since the 70’s; but women are still missing. Having only 6 or 10% of first authors that are female is a long, long way from representative–especially since the graduation rates for MDs are quite similar. (i wish the tables in the journal were part of the free contnent!)

    My question is: is being transgendered the only way to get coverage of this question in the papers??

  5. I think the biggest problem with the study of subjects like these (i.e. the nature vs. nurture debate) is that it's nearly impossible to quantify things, or do some proper blinding. You'd have to raise a group of kids in complete isolation from any influence of society's values and biases, and have them be tutored by a computer, in order to accurately find out just how pervasive the influence of nurture is on a person's abilities and character.

    So what's left is guesswork, value judgements about the perceived effect of some event or teaching technique.

    It doesn't work because everything that's being learned and its influence on the person is altered by the things that have already been learned in the past. Everything builds on something else. So theoretically, the only way to tackle this problem properly would be to build your research from the ground up, so you have an idea of all the factors that have already played their part.

    Some questionaire filled in by a randomized group of men and women is totally worthless except to give you an idea of how opinions differ between people raised in that particular sample of society. And that's the only conclusion you can take, because everything else is unfounded guessing.

  6. Bug_Girl,

    I think we actually agree that the most probable factor keeping women out of science is societal pressures.

    I just happen to think that a hypothesis that IS supported by evidence should never be dismissed out of hand because it is not considered politically correct. Sexual dimorphism in humans is clearly a fact, and one's entire personality can change with just the slightest adjustment of, say, testosterone. Therefore, it's not unreasonable to want to explore exactly what inherent differences exist between men and women, even if the results show us something we don't like — say, that men have an easier time grasping spatial relationships (as an example) and that women have the leg up in other areas.

  7. Agreed Sean.

    I think a better way to say what I'm thinking is:

    While the cognitive differences between the sexes may be small–and probably do exist–the lens of gender magnifies the differences greatly via socialization and other societal influences.

    So, Exarch is right that it's impossible to get a "proper" controlled study, at least in a practical sense.

  8. Except…that I don’t think the evidence is that strong for the sexual dimorphism in math/other technical abilities.
    Sure, it’s there, but I don’t think that it’s as large or influential as it has been portrayed. If you look at the *primary literature* and not the media blurbs, the differences are pretty subtle.

    But that doesn’t make good press.
    Unless you are transgendered :)

    Edited to add: do you guys think the book “The Bell Curve” also was squelched/criticized because of PC types? Let’s get race in on this, and make things interesting!

  9. The tragedy here is that the question of whether gender differences in mental abilities exist often gets used to squelch research to determine if they exist (“a sexist opinion”), or to squelch programs working on the social aspects of the problem (“they’ll nexer be as good as us, so why bother?”). In reality, both are needed, one to determine a scientific fact, the other do address a serious evil.

    I think that it has been proven well that there are serious cultural problems in academe, and in society in general, which make it hard for women to be succesful mathematicians and scientists. Whether there are relevant, significant cognitive differences as well is harder to say. Regardless, we know that the social factors can be fixed, and that they most likely form most of the problem.

  10. bug_girl: We can definitely agree on that, I think. The social/environmental factors here are definitely the first-order effect. Whatever biological differences may exist in cognition between the genders are going to be a second-order effect, and they're more likely to be a difference in type of intelligence rather than overall amount of intelligence. I think a lot of critics of the idea that cognitive differences exist between the genders assume that the latter is always what is meant and further assume that any observed difference must necessarily indicate an advantage for males.

    Because any effects that exist are likely to be small, I believe that we should do more research to discover the exact amount and nature of any differences between men and women. It could only help the cause of equality, really. If we can say that we honestly studied the problem and found that men and women differ by this amount in this way, we can extrapolate that it accounts for no more than X percent of the discrepancy between men and women in positions of power and academic influence. It essentially provides a control and strengthens the argument for social change, because we can then say, "Well, Y percent of the problem is left over which CAN'T be due to gender differences, so we need to find a way to address that now." I think we'll be able to argue much more effectively for social change if we have some hard, well-researched facts instead of just assumptions, even if we're pretty certain that our assumptions are correct.

  11. Joshua wrote:
    I think a lot of critics of the idea that cognitive differences exist between the genders assume that the latter is always what is meant and further assume that any observed difference must necessarily indicate an advantage for males.

    I think the same can be said for other resaerch that’s not considered PC. So to bring in race:
    Suppose you’re studying genetic and cognitive differences between caucasians and any other diffrently coloured group of humans? Why, you must be out to prove that white people are superior. And if a difference is found, very often it is immediately interpreted to prove exactly that, even if it doesn’t.
    For example, it’s discovered that black people are on average physically stronger than white people, and immediately people are distorting that to imply that if they are physically superior, they must therefore be intellectually inferior (because you can’t have the best of both), even though the research doesn’t even touch on that subject. Other people are immediately going the sample-size of one route, saying how they know plenty of skinny black nerds.

    We’re so eager to point out we’re not racist, that we are …

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