Archive

Archive for the ‘Gender’ Category

One Instance Where Political Correction is More Accurate

I generally despise anything politically correct. Topics concerning race are particularly mushy puddles of P.C./B.S.  They are at once overly talked about and under-analyzed. Same goes for gender. My last post on the topic of innate differences among groups highlighted the hysteria generated controversy of any academic foolish inquisitive enough to research any differences among genders. Well my friend and faithful reader, Dave, sent me a recent Slate article reporting on a study researching, gasp!, racial differences. For example, they argue that black men generally have higher centers of gravity which helps with the physics of locomotion (i.e. running) while whites’ general lower center of gravity helps in swimming. 


To me these are rather trivial, mildly interesting, topics – the reason I’m covering this study is something else entirely. The authors don’t argue that the differences are racial but biological or hereditary. Before you think that they are just being P.C. or nitpicking, read this explanation. First the scientists in science-y language:

Our approach is to study phenotypic (somatotypic) differences … which we consider to have been historically misclassified as racial characteristics. These differences represent consequences of still not well-understood variable environmental stimuli for survival fitness in different parts of the globe during thousands of years of habitation. Our study does not advance the notion of race, now recognized as a social construct, as opposed to a biological construct. We acknowledge the wide phenotypic and genotypic diversity among the so-called racial types.

Now the Slate reporter helping translate:

This is a fascinating bit of finesse. There’s nothing unusual about dismissing race as social construct. Racism watchdogs do it all the time. But they do it precisely to deny hereditary differences between blacks and whites.

 […]

Taking “race” out of the equation makes a substantive difference: It focuses the conversation about heredity on populations, a more precise and scientifically accepted way of categorizing people. 

[…]

The authors also help the conversation by pointing out that “environmental stimuli” caused differential evolution in different parts of the world. There’s nothing inherently good or bad about being West African or Eastern European. All of us are evolving all the time. As environmental conditions change in each part of the world, they change the course of natural selection. Ten thousand years from now, the average center of body mass might be higher in Europe than in Africa.

Simply put, it is not about being black or white that causes biological differences. Populations’ genetics blend and change all the time. We lump people into race groups because it’s visually easy, not because it’s a particularly accurate measure of anything. But that doesn’t mean different groups of people can’t have biological differences – but those differences aren’t static and aren’t inherently bad or good. In the future, populations that happen to have darker or lighter skin will have different sets of genes which produce different effects in those individuals. Accepting that genetic differences exist does not condemn anyone to prejudice or racism – it should eradicate it. 


(image from here)

Advertisements

Summers-Time Class: Gender Studies

June 16, 2010 2 comments

Discussing potential differences in innate abilities between groups remains a controversial topic and research area. Famously, Larry Summers found himself at the center of a nationwide controversy after he upset many of the students and faculty at Harvard when he speculated on the reasons why women might be less represented in math and science fields. John Tierney in The New York Times has written two columns (here and here) that present some research along with his opinions which seem to vindicate Summers. 

The Duke researchers report in Intelligence, “Our data clearly show that there are sex differences in cognitive abilities in the extreme right tail, with some favoring males and some favoring females.”

The researchers say it’s impossible to predict how long these math and science gender gaps will last. But given the gaps’ stability for two decades, the researchers conclude, “Thus, sex differences in abilities in the extreme right tail should not be dismissed as no longer part of the explanation for the dearth of women in math-intensive fields of science.”

Other studies have shown that these differences in extreme test scores correlate with later achievements in science and academia. Even when you consider only members of an elite group like the top percentile of the seventh graders on the SAT math test, someone at the 99.9 level is more likely than someone at the 99.1 level to get a doctorate in science or to win tenure at a top university.

[…]

The gap in science seems due mainly to another difference between the sexes: men are more interested in working with things, while women are more interested in working with people. There’s ample evidence — most recently in an analysis of surveys of more than 500,000 people — that boys and men, on average, are more interested in inanimate objects and “inorganic” subjects like math and physics and engineering, while girls and women are more drawn to life sciences, social sciences and other “organic” careers that involve people and seem to have direct social usefulness.  

You can argue how much of this difference is due to biology and how much to society, but could you really affect it by sending scientists and engineers off to the workshops mandated by the bill now in Congress?  

PZ Myers isn’t too happy with Tierney.

Now here’s the problem: there is no clear marker or metric for success in science. It’s a complicated task, with lots of variables and lots of different strategies for doing well. It’s not like looking for the person who runs the 100 meter dash the fastest, in which we could just line up the applicants, fire a starting gun, and give the job to the first person who crosses the finishing line. So what do we do? We use proxy metrics.

The best proxies are measurements that most closely approximate performance in science. We look at publication records, grants awarded, recommendations of colleagues, the sort of thing we’d expect our new scientist to continue doing. It’s not perfect — maybe the applicant is a neurotic living on the edge who’s about to break down, or maybe they have an abrasive personality that will affect the performance of other faculty — but it’s a good start. It’s what most committees should evaluate most highly in the hiring process. 

[…]

All of those things are still just proxies for the constellation of properties you want in a scientific colleague. We have to balance them to get an idea of the potential of an applicant: it would be insane to hire someone with no experience, no publications, and no grants just because they got straight As in high school and college. But for some reason, in this tedious argument about the suitability of women to do science, all that gets mentioned is a gender difference in performance on standardized tests. 

He then goes on to point out that wealth is also a great predictor of success in test scores. He’s using this example to blow up Tierney’s connection between gender and test scores since obviously wealth isn’t innate. Myers makes some interesting points but this is a poor one. It’s entirely possible (and researchers have made the point before (e.g. Steven Pinker)) that intelligence and wealth are correlated because, unsurprisingly, intelligent people are more likely to be wealthy due to their intelligence helping them get higher paying jobs. In other words, intelligence is a cause of wealth rather than the reverse. 


Real discrimination is a problem, but pretending that no differences exist makes it more difficult to establish when actual discrimination is taking place. At the very least we should be able to discuss the issue without being vilified. If not we might have to sue Mother Nature for age discrimination.


%d bloggers like this: