The “Around the Web” series highlights informative websites, and also targeted blog posts and news articles, relevant to the courses I teach. Last semester I taught Anth 143: Biology of Human Behavior, an introductory-level course that covers the basics of evolution, behavioral biology, and the interaction of biology and culture. My hope is that these posts are useful not only for my current students, but other people hoping to gain background or insight into these topics.
Ah, cognitive sex differences. Here we often find a mix of explanations for why we don’t need to try to achieve equity in the sciences, or for why women are simply less interested in the sciences. There are plenty of examples trotted out of men’s superiority in spatial ability, and the few where women are sometimes found to be superior put women on a pedestal without gaining her any real power or advantage in society (look at lovely woman, so able to verbally communicate that it makes her a good mommy and wife!).
This year has been a good year to critically evaluate cognitive sex differences, thanks to Cordelia Fine’s book Delusions of Gender and the many spaces online that have reviewed her book. I have yet to read it and it didn’t turn up under the Christmas tree, so I’ll be buying it for myself. The reviews have me very excited.
So, I’ll start there, then work my way through the other cool stuff that’s been covered this year.
Delusions of Gender
Slate reviews the book and interviews Fine. Here is one of my favorite quotes from her:
We look around in our society, and we want to explain whatever state of sex inequality we have. It’s more comfortable to attribute it to some internal difference between men and women than the idea that there must be something very unjust about our society. As long as there has been brain science there have been misguided explanations and justification for sex and inequality — that women’s skulls are the wrong shape, that their brain is too small, that their head is too unspecialized. It was once very cutting-edge to put a brain on a scale, and now we have cutting-edge research that is genuinely sophisticated and exciting, but we’re still very much at the beginning of our journey of understanding of how our brain creates the mind.
New Scientist also has a review in CultureLab. This article also reviews Jordan-Young’s Brainstorm, which looks like a similarly excellent book on the topic of sex differences. It is published with Harvard University Press rather than a press that tends to attract a wider audience, so maybe that’s why Fine’s book has received more attention.
Katherine Bouton reviews the article in the New York Times. The last line was my favorite: “It’s really not just a few steps from looking longer at moving objects to aptitude in math, from gazing at faces to mind reading.”
This Language Log post refers to the Bouton one and makes some interesting parallels between the Connellan et al (2001) article Fine dismantles and the Hauser misconduct case. I love teaching the Connellan et al (2001) article, and have been for many years — it’s such a great example of reductionist wording, flawed methodology, and incorrect conclusions off the authors’ own evidence. I have used it in particular in introductory writing courses, as a way to show students they can be critical thinkers, since they quickly pick up on most of the paper’s errors.
The Language Log post already dismantled the flawed methodology. I just want to briefly mention the flawed conclusions off the results they get. Remember, Connellan et al are using Connellan’s face, and a mobile comprised of a broken up photo of her face, as the two objects the infants are gazing at. Staring at Connellan implies a preference for faces and eventual social superiority, where preference for the mobile implies a preference for physical-mechanical objects.
Below, I’ve reproduced Tables 1 and 2.
|Table 1. Number (and percent) of neonates falling into each perference [sic] category|
|Face preference||Mobile preference||No preference|
|Males (n = 44)||11 (25.0%)||19 (43.2%)||14 (31.8%)|
|Females (n = 58)||21 (36.2%)||10 (17.2%||27 (46.6%)|
|Table 2. Mean percent looking times (and standard deviation) for each stimulus|
|Males (n = 44)||45.6 (23.5)||51.9 (23.3)|
|Females (n = 58)||49.4 (20.8)||40.6 (25.0)|
Let’s pretend for a minute that there were not significant methodological concerns and just look at the data. What I notice are a few things. First, females primarily exhibit NO preference, not facial preference. If half my subjects exhibited no preference, I’d probably have to say the methods and stimuli were flawed. Males might have a slight mobile preference, but even if that were statistically significant, I’m not sure there is a lot of biological meaning to 19 vs 11 individuals’ preferences. Further, they mention that their statistical significance derives entirely from the greater male preference for the mobile (not a greater female preference for the face), yet their conclusions indicate female superiority in social cognition skills.
Table 2 is perhaps more damning. First, the difference in percent looking time is not really different between any of the four groups (male/face, male/mobile; female/face, female/mobile). This becomes more obvious when you consider the standard deviations. Again, it is important to place statistical significance in the context of biological usefulness. Do these few seconds’ difference in looking time tell us something, or not? My bet is on the latter.
Other delightful bits
Coverage of Fine’s book wasn’t the only time I got to read about cognitive sex differences, prejudice, and social conditioning. Most of the posts and articles I link to this section should provide very strong evidence for social conditioning playing a primary role in cognitive and behavioral sex differences. I am quite sure there are some genetic and/or biological differences between the sexes; however, I am unconvinced that they would amount to much of anything if we didn’t seize upon them and nurture them from birth. Further, meta-analyses of cognitive sex difference studies have found very small effect sizes, which means that overall, even when differences are found in empirical studies, those differences are tiny (Hyde 2005).
Check out Greg Laden’s great post: Why do women shop and men hunt? He does a nice job criticizing the idea of some sort of universal Pleistocene environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA), which already does a lot to undermine arguments that humans have evolved certain sex-specific behaviors over the last few million years due to foraging in the savannah. He also discusses the huge amount of variation in social structure among modern humans, which helps us understand why this idea that there is essential male and female behavior is flawed.
This article discusses the damage that can be done to a woman’s cognitive ability when she is objectified. I know I have trouble thinking when I receive comments on my physical appearance in my student evaluations, and the few times this has been done to me professionally by colleagues.
Related to this, Communicate Science discusses a study that had male and female actors give scripted 10-minute physics lectures and then had real physics students give evaluations (the students thought they were lecturers). The males received higher evaluations overall — when broken down by student gender, the female students gave slightly higher evals to the female lecturers, but the male students gave MUCH higher evals to the male lecturers. This is the sort of study that keeps me up at night, thinking about going up for tenure as a female scientist.
More on physics teaching: Ed Yong writes about a writing exercise that helps reinforce students’ values and their sense of self, which then appears to close the gender gap in physics assessment. I had my students do this assignment on the last day of class as a way to help them with their finals (though we only did it for about 2 minutes — I encouraged them to do more at home). A really neat piece!
Pharyngula is a blog I read often, and was one of the first science blogs I ever read, but I don’t think PZ’s work has ever made it into one of my Around the Web posts. However, this post, “Attention, perversely assertive women! You are abnormal!” really resonated with me. He covers a recent news story about using dexamethasone to pre-treat normal girl fetuses (and those with the legitimate genetic disorder CAH) to prevent masculine preferences and behaviors.
Next, an article in the New York Times Business Section on why more women aren’t the boss. There are some interesting thoughts shared on mentorship and risk-taking behaviors.
The always-brilliant Jennifer Ouelette discusses the idea that “boyz will be boyz” in her post that dismantles the idea that female science teachers are feminizing science classes and increasing the dropout rate for boys.
Random interesting tidbits
I had intended to finish this post in time for the end of 2010. I had wanted to send you in the direction of some pretty pictures as a way to close out the year, so let this be some eye candy to start you off well for 2011. Myrmecos (who I feel privileged to know in person through his fantabulous wife) offers up “The Best of Myrmecos 2010.” I will be honest here and say that, before this blog, I had close to zero appreciation for insects and mostly thought of ways to keep them out of my house and office, or kill them if they came in. I pay a lot more attention to them now, and wish I knew more.
And, Jerry Coyne put together some images from National Geographic that I liked from the 2010 contest.
Happy new year to all!
Connellan, J. (2000). Sex differences in human neonatal social perception Infant Behavior and Development, 23 (1), 113-118 DOI: 10.1016/S0163-6383(00)00032-1
Hyde, J. (2005). The Gender Similarities Hypothesis. American Psychologist, 60 (6), 581-592 DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.60.6.581