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.


Anonymous Mauro said...

I've always wondered if the lack of women in fields like math, engineering, etc, could be due to some sort of self-perpetuating social myth that says "women don't like exact sciences". Being raised to think like that, women avoid those fields and in turn enforce the myth...

10:18 PM, February 20, 2005  
Anonymous Michael Chermside said...

Hi, Barbara... a nice post because it's the kind of thing that gets one thinking.

Now, I'm a pretty strong "wok" style thinker, so I felt like dashing off a few quick responses to various points in your post. Mostly I'm going to disagree with small bits (it's hardly worth writing to say "yeah, I agree"... the interesting discussion comes at the points of disagreement). So I wanted to point out that the vast majority of what you wrote rings very true to me. Basically, anything I don't mention is a place where I agree.

Okay, I'm also not going to respond to Larry Summer's statements at all, because somehow _I_ didn't hear of them. So I'll just respond to some of the points that YOU made.

I guess what I'd like to do is to defend the need to ask the question "Does gender influence intelligence?". First of all, the question is "influence", not "control". It's blatently obvious (as you illustrate with yourself) that gender doesn't "control" intelligence... even with something like physical strength which is HUGELY gender influenced, there are plenty of women stronger than men. And just as with physical strength, your environment (ie, the hours you spend at the gym) makes a big difference. Girls who are told that "girls aren't supposed to be good at math" (and unfortunately, this DOES happen) may have a much harder time.

But just because gender isn't the largest factor in differing types of intelligence doesn't mean that it isn't a factor at all. You ask whether there could be differences due to race or blood type -- and I suppose that there could be. But I would guess that it's fairly unlikely. Race usually has only very small effects on anything other than skin, hair, facial features, and a few particular suceptibilities carried in certain gene pools. I've never heard of blood type affecting anything other than transfusions and some highly unusual blood disorders. But gender... that seems to affect all kinds of things. It affects the placement of organs in the body. It affects lifespans. It affects the amounts of various hormones circulating in the body... remember that these have an influence on the brain's functioning. It affects (on average) things like the overall size of the head and number of neurons. Why wouldn't it affect kinds of intelligence?

So where you see the political motivation for such studies (which I certainly agree IS one motivation), I also see a genuine scientific reason for wanting to explore this area. And I notice another strong political force at play here: the forces of "political correctness" would tend to suppress such research. And perhaps with good reason: while in college, Rachel (my wife) once did a meta-study reviewing numerous studies into gender and intelligence and found that a huge portion of them were just out-and-out bad science -- people using the wrong statistical formulas or failing to realize that volume scales as length^3. Such "studies" shouldn't be published! Also, as you pointed out, despite the (reputable) researcher's repeated pleas that the existance of small correlations in no way justifies gender-based opportunities or teaching methods, some in our society persist in doing so.

But I guess I'm just a scientific idealist of a sort. I honestly believe that we're better off knowing than not knowing. If researchers can show that gender accounts for (to make up a number I'd be willing to believe) 2% - 4% of the individual variability in spacial relations skills, then I think we should find that out, and publish it, and use it as a reason NOT to teach girls and boys differently. Perhaps we'd even be able to show that playing with trucks helps spacial reasoning (regardless of what the trucks are doing), and that will help remind us to buy trucks for all our kids (who like trucks) not just the boys.

The other thing that seems so important to me is to remember that environmental factors make a huge difference. My profession is programming, and there is a shamefully baised gender ratio in that field. I simply can't believe that this is due to gender-based differences in intelligence... if men and women thought THAT differently, we'd notice it more. I think it's mostly due to social pressures. I taught computers to middle and high-school students and it was simply extrordinary how much social pressure there was on girls NOT to take computers seriously. This kind of societal pressure has nothing to do with innate gender differences.

So summing that up, I think there are good reasons for doing this kind of research, but that it is the kind of thing which is easily misused. But it's because it can be so easily misused that I think it's important to do real research in this area. Over and over I hear people claiming things like "Human beings evolved for a hunter-gatherer society in which women just stayed home and picked roots and berries, while men went out and hunted mastadons. Thus men are natural leaders." This is rubbish (the speaker has no basis for knowing what kinds of gender differences primitive humans had, and even if that bit were true, there's no basis for reasoning from there to leadership). But it's often-repeated rubbish, and it has the sound of science behind it. The most convincing retort is not "but that's rubbish" (which sounds like sour grapes to someone who believed the original claim), but "Dr Fastowich's research on gender and intelligence shows....".

-- Michael Chermside

9:57 AM, February 21, 2005  
Blogger Barbara Preuninger said...

Well, it turns out that Larry Summer's comments were about women in the hard sciences, not in mathematics. Oops. Well, the post wasn't really about him anyway.

I think there are probably lots of reasons that we don't see a lot of women in math/engineering/physics, but I'm not willing to assume that genetics plays such a huge role. Maybe I would feel differently if I'd never heard of the studies from a century or so ago that "proved" women were less intelligent because they had smaller size brains. When the conclusions of a study seem to support what people wish to be true (e.g. that men and women are "complementary" to each other), I start getting suspicious.

Also, on Echidne's blog, she makes this really good point:

"Note also that girls and women score as much higher in tests of essay writing, yet we rarely hear the argument that men are innately unable to become great writers in the same numbers as women. Note that many men who are scientists now did not score in the upper tails of these test distributions..."

10:10 AM, February 21, 2005  
Blogger Barbara Preuninger said...

Hey Michael,

I actually wrote my comments before I read yours. You made a good point when you said that because gender influences so much physically, that there's more likelihood it will make a difference in intelligence than, say, blood type. (On the other hand, I still think the jury is still out for the "birth order" question...)

I can buy that there are differences in men's and women's intelligence. What I don't buy is the idea that the differences are so complementary. In other words, people will say "the average man is better at math and the average woman is better at writing". And it fits into this nice little world view of men and women adding their
"equal but opposite" piece to the puzzle of humanity.

I have my doubts that it's so "equal and opposite", even when you're just talking averages. People envision this pretty graph with "verbal skills" on the left and "math/science skills" on the right, and two well-shaped bell curves: a "women's" bell curve which overlaps just slightly to the left of the "men's". I dispute both the graph's depiction of the nature of intelligence (math/science vs. verbal), and how well the bells are shaped.

I mean, there are so many different aspects of "intelligence" that don't fit into these neat categories. So it's actually kind-of hard to determine what men and women (on average) are better at.
I mean, Set Theory is different from Geometry is different from Statistics, though they are all "mathematics". And Chemistry is different from Civil Engineering is different from Particle Physics, even though they are all "hard science". Why do we assume that men (even on average) are really better at all aspects of math/science?

IMHO, to really depict reality, you would need multi-dimensional bell curves, and I'm not sure how cleanly those would overlap. But I'll to stop there because as a woman, I might start having trouble with an analogy like this one...


11:07 AM, February 21, 2005  
Blogger LAmom said...

Hi, Barbara!

Lovely blog! I'm glad to have "met" you!

Joan (LAmom)

1:36 PM, March 24, 2005  
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