Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Tierney weighs in on the Gender Bias Panel

In my last post I discussed the recent National Academies panel on gender bias. In today's NY Times, John Tierney weighs in on the issue. (This one is 'Times Select' - subscription required.)

I'm usually at ideological odds with Tierney, but not quite so much this time. He comes up with a great Onion title for the panel's work:

"This is the kind of science you expect to find in The Onion: 'Academy Forms Committee to Study Gender Discrimination, Bars Men from Participating.' Actually, it did allow a total of one man, Robert Birgeneau of Berkeley, on the 18-member committee, but that was presumably because he was already on record agreeing with the report’s pre-ordained conclusion: academia must stop favoring male scientists and engineers."

Tierney hits some good points (such as how the panel fails to distinguish between bias 30 years ago and bias today). He also gets into the 'innate differences' issue that I avoided in my last post:

"One well-documented difference is the disproportionately large number of boys scoring in the top percentile of the SAT math test. And when you compare boy math whizzes with girl math whizzes, more differences appear. The boys score much higher on the math portion of the SAT than on the verbal, whereas the girls are more balanced — high on the verbal as well as the math.

The girls have more career options, and they have different priorities than the boys, as the psychologists David Lubinski and Camilla Persson Benbow have demonstrated by tracking students with the exceptional mathematical ability to become top-flight researchers in science and engineering."

I've got two things to note about this:

- In addition to a disproportionate number of boys in the top math SAT percentile, there is also a disproportionate number of boys in the bottom percentile. In other words, the average score is not so different among boys and girls, but there are more boys on both ends of the curve.

- This difference in the top percentile in SAT math may be relevant to differences in some sciences like theoretical physics or pure math (I have no idea), but, as I hinted at in my last post, I think it's irrelevant in many other fields like biology. Biology has some very quantitative aspects, but the people I know who are outstanding in those areas aren't necessarily the ones who were 'math whizzes' on the SAT. Good biologists need a variety of different skills, not just the ones that lead to a top SAT math score. Also, in biology, rigorous verbal reasoning skills play a much larger role, and recall that girls are overrepresented in the top percentiles of the verbal SAT. So are women innately better biologists?

One statement in Tierney's article especially bugs me- he lumps biology with psychology as a 'soft science.' This idea that men are better at 'hard' sciences and women are better at 'soft' sciences is just crap. Biology is just as much a hard (meaning, roughly, quantitative and experimentally rigorous) science as any other of the natural sciences - geology, astronomy, and yes, physics and chemistry. Biology (evolution, molecular biology, genetics, ecology, etc.) has much more in common with astronomy or geology than with psychology.

UPDATE: If you can access this (subscription required), this Nature Neuroscience Editorial has some interesting references to the primary literature and comments on the differences in SAT scores. They note that the score differences (more boys at the tail ends of the curve) don't occur in all Western countries, suggesting that the effect may very well be cultural. Who knows? It seems like the debate is often just stuck at the level of "Women are less able!" "No they're not, men are just hopelessly predjudiced!" As I made clear in my last post, I think there are other answers.

[This post was edited a few times for clarity.]

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