Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Gender imbalances and horror stories

I had the good fortune of seeing Australian guitar sensation Tommy Emmanuel perform in Berkeley last night. As if that weren't enough, I was sitting next to Karen Stollznow a tireless Australian skeptic, author, and linguist (and creator of the pope-tart).

We had a chance to chat here and there, and I cringed when she recounted her high school physics horror story. Not because I hadn't hear such accounts before. I am well aware of the harsh treatment of girls and women in physics courses in high school and college. I wrote my master's thesis on the gender imbalance in physics education. So the novelty of hearing about the mistreatment, alienation, and marginalization of girls in high school physics classes is gone. OK, the stories still make me cringe because of the stupidity and shortsightedness of the teachers involved.

I cringed at this story because my Australian skeptic friend was not old enough to have been in high school physics in the 1950s or 60s when a girl in a physics class was a rarity. She was young enough to let me know this kind of damaging BS is still going on. Will these backward geezers never retire? Or at least realize that the 50s are over?

Anyway, my gender imbalance sensibilities were no-doubt heightened by the recent re-examination of the 2003 American Council of Education regarding gender imbalance on the college campus. In 2003, the council found that men were lagging behind women in terms of college enrollment. The re-examination finds the gap isn't quite what it was originally thought to be.

Women certainly don't outpace men in the physics and engineering programs. And while we would like to believe that male bias in physics education is a thing of the past, a 1998 study tells a different tale. In it, the authors concluded that males had a better sense of simple ciruits than females. The evidence? When males incorrectly wired a battery and bulb circuit, they created a short circuit. When females incorrectly wired a battery and bulb circuit, they created an open circuit. Of course, neither circuit was successful in lighting the bulb. But the males' short circuit succeeded in destroying the battery, and was deemed the superior incorrect solution.

So there you have it: the smoking gun! Larry Summers was right all along! I don't know why girls even sign up for physics...

9 comments:

bc said...

I note Ms. Denton's quote in the Summers article. Which prompts me to ask, what is the gender ratio * of college and university presidents' suicides?


* Normalized, of course.

Dean Baird said...

What I notice from the Post article is that the reporter seemed to look high and low to find women who supported Summers' remarks. To a person, the Summers supporters were economists. Not scientists. I don't think they were even able to dig up a male scientist willing to rush to Summers' aid in the aftermath.

And speaking of aftermath, now that Summers is stepping down, some well-heeled potential benefactors are taking there balls and going home. Wait, I think I hear something! Oh, that's the sound of Harvard not crumbling for lack of Larry Ellison's cash.

Anonymous said...

Dean,

while larry summers may not have been the best spokesperson for the idea that there exist cognitive differences between the sexes, his ideas should not be cast aside so carelessly. to deny the hypothesis altogether without examining it at all, is unscientific. if you don't believe me, read stephen pinker's take on the matter or lubos motl's--they are hardly scientific light weights.

Dean Baird said...

It might be a worthy topic for research. Then again, so might studying cognitive differences between blue-eyed people and brown-eyed people. Right-handers and left-handers. Asians and Jews. How far do you want to take it and what would be the point?

My point is that we don't want to keep anyone out of physics or any other scientific or engineering field. The suggestion that "maybe women just don't have what it takes," no matter how much perfume you spray on it, still stinks.

And in isn't a careful evaluation of cognitive research that results in the countless experiences like those of Karen Stollznow. That's just plain, old-fashioned gender bias.

It hurts the victims and it hurts the study of physics. Carl Sagan and others ponder where humans might be by now if it weren't for historical tragedies like the destruction of the Library at Alexandria and the failure of early Ionian science to take root. The same can be wondered about whatever group we've kept out of the physics tent.

Where might we be by now if we hadn't kept it such an exclusive club? Let's go with the idea that there are cognitive differences (there are significant cognitive differences among people of the same gender/ethnicity/chirality/whatever you think should make a difference). How 'bout we bring those different abilities to bear on the problems at hand?

Just a thought.

Anonymous said...

"It [congnitive differences between the sexes]might be a worthy topic for research. Then again, so might studying cognitive differences between blue-eyed people and brown-eyed people. Right-handers and left-handers. Asians and Jews. How far do you want to take it and what would be the point?"

although you've mentioned these topics facetiously, i think they ARE worthy of research if there might be some information to be gained. have you ever heard of science for the sake of science? and who knows what GOOD may come of studying the cognitive differences between blue-eyed people and brown-eyed people. without knowing where that research might lead, how can you say that we shouldn't research it?--how unscientific! and why do you get to decide what is a worthy research topic?

i think your summary of summers' argument, "maybe women just don't have what it takes," is really a mischaracterization. to suggest that on AVERAGE a particular sex is better at a certain subject/task than the other sex does NOT mean that every individual of the former sex is better than the every individual of the latter. crudely speaking, think about two gaussian distributions with two different averages or two different standard deviations. the tails go all the way, both ways.

and besides, rational human beings do not deal with individuals based on averages of the groups to which that individual belongs. rational human beings deal with individuals as individuals.

if you're worried about bigots who don't understand the science that is being discussed here, you should work on educating those people about that science. you should not (out of fear), however, prohibit the science from being done in the first place!

Dean Baird said...

Anyone can pursue any avenue of research they like at any time. It's kind of like lawsuits in that regard. Of course in science, there are some obstacles. Someone's got to pay for it, and you hope to publish it somewhere. Ethical guidelines are often put into place.

I suppose you could propose a study with a theme like, "why are men better than women in the hard sciences" and then cry foul when no one turned up to fund it. Evidence of a PC conspiracy, to be sure.

Creationists ran into this kind of problem until they decided to leave science behind so they could do their own thing. And you have to admit, they've flourished since unfettering themselves from the overbearing constraints of the methods of science.

The harsh reality is that there is a limited supply of research funding and personnel. The initial, optimistic, and ultimately naive notion that all ideas ever dreamed up should be studied just isn't in the budget. With limited resources, we have to decide which ideas are worthy of study and which ones are likely to waste time, talent, energy, and money.

The history of research in this area has been fraught with bad ideas. Men were thought to be smarter than women because they had larger brains. When it was pointed out that by such a measure, whales would be smarter than men, it was decided that the factor to measure was the brain mass to body mass ratio. But then women came out ahead of men. And so on and so on. The conclusion was always foregone, it was simply a matter of raising the correct foundation for that conclusion. Is that science?

Anonymous said...

unfortunately, i think you are implying that research into cognitive differences is inherently unethical. i beg to differ. the fact that you propose the question negatively (e.g. "why are men better than women in the hard sciences?") shows your bias. why can't the question be asked, "are there cognitive differences between the sexes?"

and you shouldn't compare it to creationism either. that is just a poor attempt at distraction. i agree with you: creationism isn't science, it's faith, it's religion. but cognitive differences between the sexes CAN be studied scientifically.

then you say:

"The history of research in this area has been fraught with bad ideas. Men were thought to be smarter than women because they had larger brains.

what if someone had said, "we must stop here. researching this idea is pointless and unethical." we wouldn't have found out the following:

"When it was pointed out that by such a measure, whales would be smarter than men, it was decided that the factor to measure was the brain mass to body mass ratio. But then women came out ahead of men. And so on and so on."

isn't science great? the bad ideas sink to the bottom and the good ones float to the top! isn't science the search for the truth and NOT what we WISH to be true?

in my humble opinion, no rational person can deny that gender bias is responsible for some of the underrepresentation of women in physics and math. how much, however, is unlear. however, i think it's more than reasonable to believe that there are innate, cognitive differences between the sexes. to not research this idea because you may not like where it leads should be anathema to a true scientist.

Dean Baird said...

Again, the bummer is that I'm not (yet) the King of the World. So anyone is free to research any topic they can secure the resources for.

Whatever gender-based cognitive differences have been discovered so far are insignificant compared to individual differences within a single gender. There's no there there. But if someone wants to do further studies, let them write the proposals and shop them around. No one's stopping them. Least of all me.

Dan Burns said...

It is undeniable that women pursuing a career in science are made to feel uncomfortable if not unwanted. This is a result of continued sexism and plain immaturity of males. It is furthered by the very low percentage of females in science, especially the physical sciences. In addition to continuing to encourage women to pursue science as a career, we need to encourage their male counterparts to not tolerate sexist behavior from anyone. Until we create an atmosphere where it is the sexists who are made to feel uncomfortable and unwanted, we will continue to under-utilize the vast resource of over half the human population.