Saturday, February 19, 2005

Thoughts about the Larry Summers comments

Boy, am I slow to respond to news. Didn’t he make controversial comments over a month ago? Well, aside from being really busy, I also just have a generally slow response time to new information.

I like to think of myself as sort-of a “crock-pot” thinker. (I’m sure that many of my smart-alecky friends will morph that into “crackpot” thinker, but that’s not what I mean…) What I mean by “crock-pot” thinker is that I’m good at taking ideas and I mull over them for a long time with a very back-of-my mind type of thinking. Kind-of a “low energy stubbornness”. It’s just this constant turning & turning over of a new idea until I finally get to a new place with it. And like a crock-pot, the tougher the problem, the better I do. Also, I’m good at blending (sometimes disparate) ideas (flavors) into one complete whole.

I’m a good thinker if you don’t expect an answer right away. My husband is (IMHO) more of a “wok” thinker – really quick and brilliant. Not that we’re really that different, or that he doesn’t “get” tough problems, just that our styles are different. And, by the way, I’m talking about how we are as individuals, not how we represent our gender group. Which nicely gets me back to the original topic.

Mr. Summers wondered whether intelligence (especially mathematical intelligence) might be in some way influenced by gender (i.e. partially explaining why there are so few women at high levels in mathematics). My first reaction was “oh crap. Not THIS question again.” But I’m not interested in talking much about how evil or stupid Mr. Summers is. After all, the ideas he espoused were already out in public, and already causing harm. Besides which, I remember once making what I thought was just a lame joke, and then when I considered it later realized that it could (and usually would) be interpreted as really racist and hateful. I still regret it to this day. (And this was over 10 years ago!) So I can sympathize to some extent with someone who says stupid things, even if, as Harvard University president, he SHOULD know better. But I don’t like to talk about one man, or his screw-ups.

I can sort-of buy the idea that men’s and women’s thinking might be different, but what I refuse to accept is that we ALREADY KNOW EXACTLY what makes them different or what this implies for men’s & women’s intellectual potential. I also refuse to buy the notion that men & women are so VASTLY different, considering that I would have to start wondering whether I’m really a woman myself (with all this computer/math stuff I’m into).

Could there be differences due to gender? I suppose there could. Could there be differences due to race? Maybe that too. But wait! I’m not done! Maybe there are differences due to blood type! Wouldn’t that be interesting too? I can see why that would be possible, but I guess no one really CARES about that, do they? What about differences in intelligence due to birth order? I really think that that’s possible too. How about differences in people born in different months/seasons (i.e. astrological sign) Maybe there would be variance due to the weather experienced in the first few months of one’s life? Why don’t people study these topics, let alone hear about them in major media?

Why DO scientists conduct studies on gender differences in intelligence? And why do people find this interesting? What questions are they really trying to answer? IMHO, the reason has everything to do with politics, and precious little to do with mere intellectual curiosity. When scientists do these studies, they are trying to either argue that a) we need to promote more political policy to include women (assuming that women are equal in intelligence, but not yet treated equally) or b) things are fine as they are (or we need to revert policies that presumably give women an unfair advantage). If it weren’t for this very POLITICAL motivation, there would be no studies on this issue. From where I’m standing, it’s just too obvious. Which is why I have precious little patience for those who say that these studies are just a simple “pursuit of truth for it’s own sake”, and that it can’t be helped if the culture at large misinterprets or misuses the results of the studies. These theorists often say that “teachers and parents shouldn’t treat girls and boys differently regarding math & science”, while ignoring the fact that this is exactly how their theories are being applied.

Aside from all of this are the assumptions that go into such studies. It is often assumed (for some insane reason) that if you can show differences between boys and girls in one area, then it stands to reason that they differ in other areas as well. For example: “little girls are more nurturing than boys, therefore little girls are not as good at math”. Mr. Summers made this exact assumption in his anecdote about his daughter playing with trucks. Since she plays with them as “mommy and baby trucks”, this somehow illustrates a lack of mathematical ability. (I guess this means that the “typically boyish” activity of smashing trucks into each other is a strong indicator of mathematical ability…or something.) A more subtle example is one where “women aren’t on average as good at spatial reasoning” so this must mean that they’re bad at math generally, not taking into account that there are many applications to mathematics besides physics (game theory comes immediately to mind: no physics at all!). You don’t really need spatial reasoning to be good at math.

I say this because I am very good at math/logic and abysmally poor at spatial reasoning. My husband is excellent at special reasoning and yet struggles immensely with math. We are both very good at verbal logic (you should hear us argue…). And although one or two examples do not prove a lot, I only need ONE example to start shaking up the assumption that men and women have these “complementary” thinking styles. Women and men are NOT “complementary”, even if they are different. Hopefully, my point is not too subtle here. But it’s right at this subtle twist where people’s thinking so often gets jammed. For some reason, everything has to be either/or. But men and women are not “sun/moon”, or “yin/yang”. They’re more like “maple tree/oak tree”.

And granting the possibility that men and women DO have different thinking styles, it’s fairly clear to me that women’s brain power is not “less than” men’s. Makes me wonder what branches of mathematics are therefore YET UNEXPLORED because women historically have been denied access to university study. If women are not “getting ahead” in math, it may be because what is considered “brilliant mathematics” is skewed toward what the men at the tail end of the normal curve are good at. What about the kind of mathematics that brilliant “female” minds are good at, but we don’t even know about it and haven’t been able to apply it toward any good for humanity. (Assuming, of course, that “the good of humanity” is society’s reason for supporting the study of mathematics, and not simply because we admire brilliant men. When you break out of a men vs. women mindset on this issue, you can see what a loss this is for humanity in general.)

Personally, I’m not sure that I even buy the “spatial reasoning” difference. I was just using it as an example. I do believe that the studies on it were probably done honestly. But here’s my anecdotal evidence: I have observed my daughter play with trucks/cars in a similar way to Mr. Summer’s daughter (Callista’s cars very politely negotiate about where to park…) but I made an important additional observation. Callista (now a Kindergartener) happens to be incredibly good at spatial reasoning (puzzles, rotating objects in her mind, etc.) Maybe this is inherited from her father. Maybe she is just a fluke. Maybe she’s actually just average but since she’s my kid (and a heck of a lot better than I am), I assume she’s brilliant. Or maybe playing with cars and trucks actually helps develop spatial reasoning skills, regardless if the trucks are killing each other or having a tea party.

Well, I suppose I’ve said a lot. I actually take this issue less personally than I did in college, when I was still discovering who I was and my potential. I was constantly aware of a sense of trying to prove myself as a female in the very male-dominated computer science program. (BTW, I also have an Economics degree, but that wasn’t quite so male-dominated.) I sometimes still feel like an outsider as a computer programmer, but getting older has caused me to worry about it less, I think. Most of my upset on this issue comes from my recollection of my college experience and the notion of other women having to go through the same thing.

Anyway, maybe someday I’ll write another (more cynical) post about how I think that women’s “natural inclinations” always seem to conveniently coincide with low pay and/or low respect (a.k.a. the “when programmer’s salaries drop, women become better at programming” effect) But I’ll stop for now. I was given the day off to do taxes and I’d better get going.

One of those question lists

I've seen question lists on other blogs before, but I guess I've never put one on mine. Well, since a friend sent me one yesterday, and this is a nice easy way to respond.

1. What time did you get up this morning? 6:00 AM
2. Diamonds or pearls? Probably pearls because diamonds seem relatively worthless to me. Usually neither.
3. What was the last film you saw at the cinema? Not sure yet… it’s really been a long time… I think it was last May…Van Helsing? I saw it with some friends who wanted to see it. I sort-of wish that wasn’t really the last movie I’ve seen…
4. What is your favorite TV show? This changes every so often. Right now I’ll have to say “Good Eats” on the Food Network
5. What did you have for breakfast? Nothing yet. Yesterday I had a bagel w/ butter. Probably again today. How boring.
6. What is your middle name? Michelle
7. Favorite cuisine? Japanese and Indian (I just left the original answer here! But I’ll also add Thai.)
8. What foods do you dislike? Mushrooms and peppers (unless the peppers are in salsa)
9. What is your favorite flavor? Maple (only real maple)
10. What is your favorite CD at the moment? Hmmm… Well, I don’t really have many CDs. Most of what I have are mixes burned onto CD. Favorite CD I bought in store: Chopin
11. What kind of car do you drive? Mazda 6
12. Favorite sandwich? PB & J (toasted)
13. What characteristic do you despise? Dishonesty/lack of integrity
14. Favorite item of clothing? Camisole
15. If you could go anywhere in the world on vacation,where would you
Spain (with Bill this time)
16. What color is your bathroom? Black & white & blue
17. Favorite brand of clothing? Whatever fits and is cheap…
18. Where would you retire to? A comfortable home in the woods (I’m just going to shamelessly copy this answer too)
19. Favorite time of the day? Weekday: Right before bedtime Weekend: Early morning
20. What was your most memorable birthday? My 30th (mainly because it just happened…)
21. Where were you born? Schenectady, NY
22. Favorite sport to watch? Ice hockey and ice-skating (even though I’m not really a fan of either)
23. Who do you least expect to send this back to you? Hm. I wasn’t really planning on sending it out.
24. Person you expect to send it back first? N/A
25. What fabric detergent do you use? Whatever is cheapest.
26. When is your birthday? 02/01/75
27. Are you a morning person or a night person? Morning, apparently.
28. What is your shoe size? 8
29. Do you have any pets? 2 cats
30. Any new and exciting news you'd like to share with your family & friends? Not really. But that’s OK with me.
31. What did you want to be when you were little? Doctor/minister/archeologist/anthropologist
32. What are you doing today? Computer programming. I am very well suited for this in some ways (very good at logic and coming up with creative solutions to abstract problems, figuring out a new language just by looking at it), and very poorly suited in other ways (hate being super methodological with finding/preventing bugs, don’t like dealing with computer setup/networking/anything that I see as knowledge-based vs. logic-based). Eventually, I’d like to move into something that’s a better fit. (My “baby step” is my current Bioethics course and I’d like to pursue a degree in that. But a Bioethics degree alone will not make me ready for a new career. I’d have to take it in conjunction with something else, like law/poli. sci./economics/public policy. I’m looking into some programs at Temple, but I'm not ready to start taking courses yet. All in good time.)