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Inference to the best explanation suggests a boot to the head

June 8, 2010, 10:47 am

what LB said, about this terribly daring article that seems to suggest that the importance of identifying and eliminating bias affecting women in the sciences cannot be determined unless science has established that men and women have the same innate* mathematical abilities.  To this I’d add the following:

1) This argument apparently only works for math. If we’re talking at the level of the facts people normally pull out here, there’s some research that suggests that at the tip of the tail, the brightest men are better at math than the brightest women, and the usual argument proceeds from here to conclude that this explains why men are more likely to be PhD’s in math, etc.  But similar research shows that the best female communicators are better than their male counterparts, and that women are natural consensus builders and yet no one suggests that top literature and political science departments are and should be female-dominated, because here we can easily see that innate tendencies can be overrun by other factors.

In fact, when girls get into gifted programs in greater numbers than boys, there are articles in the NYT about ways we have to ensure that the boys are tested properly, worrying about the biases and expectations of the teachers and testers.  This is a smart thing to consider.  Would that we took the same attitude towards preteen girls who struggle with math instead of writing them off because the top men might be better than the top women!

2. You (probably) cannot see the tip of the tail from where you are. The hidden assumption of these kinds of arguments is that the granting of, say, academic positions in the sciences at Harvard neatly tracks mathematical ability, and that the academic positions in question always go to the candidate who is best at math.  (It would make hiring easier…) I think it’s questionable whether the marginal utility of mathematical talent is sufficient at the top end across all scientific disciplines to explain any kind of hiring disparity.  Being a 1.23% better mathematician might be outweighed easily by a more creative head for experimental design, or a stronger work ethic, or a charming personality that encourages others to collaborate, or having an advisor run into someone at a conference and drop your name, or having a generous grant, or what have you.

Moreover, the purported difference in mathematical ability is not sufficient to explain day-to-day disparities in the professions.  Not everyone who is a working scientist or engineer or statistician or social scientist is in the top 1% of mathematical abilities.  Not even close.   Sometimes they let you be an engineer with only 650 on the Math SAT!  The relevance of the long tail for most very smart people: not so much.

2b.  Side note to philosophers: we’re not actually mathematicians. This needs to be said.

3. An uncomfortable alternative explanation suggests itself. Let me set aside the sciences for the moment.  Philosophy is about 25% female, and whenever this topic comes up, some  philosophers fall all over themselves explaining why more women don’t major in philosophy, why more don’t go to grad school, why women drop out along the tenure stream in ways that ensure it’s not their fault:  there are differences between men and women regarding mathematical ability, women just can’t handle or don’t like rigorous arguments, perhaps it’s time to consider that women just don’t like philosophy, or that they’re not as good as it as men, so of course the top jobs….

For some reason, the negative effects of the attitudes of senior philosophers towards the likely character traits of their female students on retention rates of said female students rarely comes up.

Not that I think that’s a complete explanation, or even one meant as more than a zinger; whatever leads to fewer female scientists and philosophers and engineers includes many factors, and the sensible thing to do would be to get up out of the armchair and… identify and eliminate such factors, if possible, as the House bill proposes.   We shouldn’t need to prove that men and women have identical mathematical abilities to discuss how to remove systematic barriers to entry.


*I have a problem using “innate” ever since I overhead this conversation at an x-phi conference:

“We psychologists try not to say “nature vs. nurture.”  ”Why?” “Because it’s always wrong and it makes you look like a dumbass.”

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