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January 18, 2005

Sex follow up....

I've wasted way too much time on the whole "sex differences" topic in the past day, but I want to link to this post, which starts by stating:

Unsurprisingly, those on the liberal side of the blogosphere have been quite harsh in their criticism of Summers. Does he deserve the attacks? Short answer: yes. Long answer: hell yes.

And finishes near the end with:

This brings us to the real reason why Summers deserves the harsh criticism. He is probably right that there exist real sex differences, across the entire population, in math abilities, but we know too little about the sources of these differences to be speaking definitively about them in public forums.

Read the previous post on this topic on GNXP and follow the links to what Summers is quoted as saying, and I think it is clear he is not making definitive assertions, but throwing out plausible hypotheses! A common trend seems to be that a) we don't know much about what's going on, but, b) let's assume that the gender imbalances are all due to rife discrimination. You can't have it both ways, that is, your own hypotheses are legitimate, but those of others are not. Since this "controversy" showed up a week after I read The Essential Difference, I probably have a "bias" on this topic. Simon Baron-Cohen points out that many of the mean differences between males and females shows up in one year old infants (males stare at mechanical objects longer, females at faces, etc.)!

But a few points.

1) Go here and play around with this applet, and note for yourself how trivial mean differences in two normal distributions can have large consequences at the tails. Simon Baron-Cohen has about a dozen illustrations of male & female normal distributions in his book, as if to hammer in to his readers the idea that a small mean difference can result in outsized ratios at the edges. In Baron-Cohen's work, this is in the context of those who suffer from Autism or Asperger's, who tend to be overwhelmingly male.

2) Yes, we need to be explicit about decomposing the various factors that lead to the peculiar distribution in some fields of male:female ratios. Some of it is probably developmental and related to the transformation of the "female" fetus with a Y chromosome to a male at the end of the first trimester. Baron-Cohen and others have related the correlation between testosterone in females and "Tomboyishness" and visual-spatial abilities (though Baron-Cohen notes that in males normal or subnormal testosterone levels correlate with better visual-spatial skills than high testosterone levels, females with "high" levels of testosterone are actually similar to males with normal-subnormal levels). Some of it is probably related to inputs and encouragement that children of different genders receive as youth (though unfortunate experiments with intersex individuals would tell us to be cautious of these sort of changes wrought by socialization). Some of the differences probably issue from cultural factors which emerge out of various other biases and preferences upstream (both biological and social). The last point is crucial, because social forces are complex. Overt discrimination is relatively easy to banish, but covert discrimination, or, more accurately, covert biases, are far more difficult to reshape because cultural variables are complex and teasing out their constituent parts in an atomic fashion can be very difficult (the interplay between the elements is half the action). Some of the responses to gender imbalances strike me as common sense, for example, I recall an Italian physicist (female) noting that all advanced students in her school were required to take physics, so opting out and "playing dumb" was not an option for girls with higher educational ambitions. This seems a reasonable step if it is important as an outcome for there to be more female physicists (though the biggest long term beneficiaries might be individuals like GNXP reader George Weinberg). Who wouldn't want more Maria Spiropulu's? My personal experience with mathematically gifted girls is that they aren't nearly as nerdy as similarly gifted males, and often gravitate to fields that don't leverage their math skills to the same extent (while male math geniuses might become physicists who are amateur musicians, female math geniuses might become musicians who do math in their spare time, to frame it in an artificial black & white fashion). On the other hand, other points, for instance, that women do better in single gender classes strike me as putting the cart before the horse, after all, isn't gender segregation simply a way to reinterpret traditionalist maxims about how men nand women "naturally" have different spheres? There are other values, other goods, that need to be considered, and sometimes I think those who emphasize the priority of gender equalitarianism of outcome never consider that the "cure" might be more pernicious than the problem, or that it might subliminally reenforce the situation rather than remediate. I think that too much of the conversation neglects the importance of preference.

3) Which forces me to end with the observation that female representation varies by discipline. Even those most offended by Summers' comments admit that the issues with women in science exist far upstream of the academy. The problem is not with women and education, as more females take the SAT and a majority of college graduates are female. Certain fields are packed with women, and high powered professions like medicine and law are, or have already, approached gender parity in numbers, if not in representation at the commanding heights.

Anyway, that's all for now.

Posted by razib at 04:06 PM