The Intersection

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I spent much of Sunday examining the education system in this country and came across NSF’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2008 report. Most alarming is the scientific literacy section based on data from the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center. Moreover, if the examination methods were reasonable, I’m extremely troubled by the ladies’ overall performance. Therefore, I plan to spend this week exploring the disparity that leaves me speechless. So kicking off Monday, let’s it started

Correct answers to scientific literacy questions, by sex: 2006
(by percent)

The center of the Earth is very hot. (True)
Male 85
Female 75

Electrons are smaller than atoms. (True)
Male 61
Female 48

How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun? (One year)
Male 66
Female 46*

* yes [sigh], over half of female respondents answered incorrectly

With more women earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the biological and agricultural sciences than men these days, do readers chalk up the gender difference to a time lag or what?

Comments

  1. #1 Matthew C. Nisbet
    April 14, 2008

    Sheril,
    You will want to talk to Susan Losh at Florida State about some of her analysis of the gender differences in this data and past NSF surveys.

    http://edf5481-01.su00.fsu.edu/Myvita.htm

    As a consultant and reviewer on the past three NSF surveys, I can tell you that there are a lot of problems with giving strong weight to these types of survey questions measuring science literacy.

    They remain on the latest NSF survey as a way to maintain a time series of consistent questions, but were pared down in number, and in emphasis, from previous years.

    –>For a discussion of some of the problems, see this past column I did:

    http://www.csicop.org/scienceandmedia/definitions/

    –>Also these recently published overview articles:

    http://pus.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/16/1/79

    http://pus.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/17/1/55

    –>In the most recent NSF survey, instead of putting the focus on science literacy, there was a stronger focus on examining the cultural authority of science. See this section of the report:

    http://nsf.gov/statistics/seind08/c7/c7s3.htm

  2. #2 Anna K.
    April 14, 2008

    If this survey was from a sample of the general population, I’m not surprised. It’s only recently that women have started going into science and technology related fields in big numbers, and if they are well represented now in biology and ag, I seem to recall that far fewer women, compared to men, are getting degrees in engineering, geology, physics . . .

    I wonder if this science literacy gap might be analogous to what has happened with female participation in sports before and after Title IX. That is, it took decades AFTER Title IX was enacted to get significant numbers of girls and women involved in athletic programs.

  3. #3 Carol
    April 14, 2008

    Troubling indeed.

  4. #4 H
    April 14, 2008

    Given men outperform women in the math and sciences, this is what I would expect.

  5. #5 Sheril R. Kirshenbaum
    April 14, 2008

    Given men outperform women in the math and sciences, this is what I would expect.

    Déjà vu

  6. #6 Kamel
    April 14, 2008

    With more women earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the biological and agricultural sciences than men these days, do readers chalk up the gender difference to a time lag or what?

    Do we really think this is a problem with university education and enrollment? Aren’t these elementary school questions? (Or maybe early high school in the case of the electron question)

    That being the case the numbers for both genders are a bit distressing.

  7. #7 Maria
    April 14, 2008

    H wrote:

    “Given men outperform women in the math and sciences, this is what I would expect.”

    OH NO HE/SHE DIDN’T ACTUALLY WRITE THAT!

  8. #8 RyanG
    April 14, 2008

    I would have gotten that last one wrong. I was thinking something along the lines of 6 hours over than a year. Silly me, taking the median instead of the mean.

  9. #9 razib
    April 14, 2008

    With more women earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the biological and agricultural sciences than men these days, do readers chalk up the gender difference to a time lag or what?

    only a small % of the population receives bachelor’s degrees in the natural sciences anyhow. so that is unlikely to exlain the difference.

  10. #10 Charles
    April 14, 2008

    Sheril,

    I think the situation is even more dire than the survey implies. The deficit isn’t limited to trivia questions,
    it extends to essential common sense reasoning about the world.

    You may wish to listen to the last part of rebecca watson’s speech on women at the NYC Sceptics convention – given that you intend to investigate the matter in earnest.

    http://www.nycskeptics.org/lectures#watson

  11. #11 windy
    April 14, 2008

    Not that it’s an excuse for poor performance, or can explain the whole difference, but women are probably more likely to answer “I don’t know”, if that was an option? The data only lists how many answered correctly.

  12. #12 razib
    April 14, 2008

    women did better than men on 2 questions, sex determination & antibiotics (WAY better on sex determination).

    http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind08/append/c7/at07-06.pdf

  13. #13 Cal Harth
    April 14, 2008

    Sheril,
    The gender disparity results can be interpreted in many ways. Men are more assertive. Women have been brought up for the most part to express uncertainty, even when they know the answer.
    Women in science have a lot to add. The male PI persona that has “huge thighs from leaping to conclusions” sometimes gets in the way of a more nuanced understanding of research results that women are capable of doing.
    Part of it is in how women are raised. If a parent treats both genders of offspring as equals about scientific concepts and natural history there are not many gender-related differences in knowledge or confidence as adults about complex subjects.
    I have high hopes that women will get more involved in science. I am sceptical about some survey results.
    Cal

  14. #14 Matthew C. Nisbet
    April 14, 2008

    What Razib points to can be explained in part by the theorizing discussed in this side bar to the NSF report:

    http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind08/c7/c7s.htm#c7sb4

    Learning and knowledge are partly a function of motivation, social identity, and context. It would not be surprising to find differential scores based on gender.

    Also, keep in mind that higher scores on knowledge of antibiotics is probably a result of women paying closer attention to news about health. In other words, some of the variance in knowledge scores is accounted for by news consumption. In fact, much of education’s influence on knowledge scores is indirect. Higher educated individuals pay closer attention to news coverage of science, and it’s this news consumption that promotes learning. See this paper I published in graduate school, my first, analyzing NSF data from 2000.

    http://crx.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/29/5/584

  15. #15 razib
    April 14, 2008

    If a parent treats both genders of offspring as equals about scientific concepts and natural history there are not many gender-related differences in knowledge or confidence as adults about complex subjects.

    are there studies about this? or are these a priori assumptions based on models of human nature & propensity?

  16. #16 Mike
    April 14, 2008

    I think that you should consider that the gender difference is nothing to do with genetics and rather exaggerated, those numbers are not hugely statistically different. I didn’t have time to look at all the results of the survey but I do have some initial questions that anyone who read more than I did should address.

    I think that I would be curious more about the cultural implications of this study and thus the distribution of the results. What is the relationship like in, say the wealthy areas of New Jersey, Orange County, the Bay Area or even just expensive/non-religious private schools?

    How does this compare to results from rural areas with a history of gender divides?

    Is ethnic background considered in these results… what are the percentages like for those from groups with disparities between treatment of members of different genders?

    My questions largely result from a personal bias which leads me to believe that, genetically at least, the opposite is true.
    This is, in fact, more worrying in a way due to the implication that young women are, on the whole, being seriously short changed by their education still (big surprise no? (I reveal another bias)).

    My bias on this one is as a biologist with extensive dealings in the world of physics, computer science, and mathematics… I am sorry to say that women generally study harder and regularly outperform men in these fields. They are, obviously, making up for a serious dearth of intelligence by a resounding effort at study.

    In my own home country of England the tenancy over the last few decades has been clear, with the gap between men and women’s performance in the final years of high school continually increasing; women demonstrating consistently higher grades in the sciences and mathematics than men.

    This post, and a (very) brief analysis of the report that stemmed it, indicate to me a cultural hole much more than an actual intellectual difference.

    Having said that, the real thing that scares me about this is the overall percentages… 56% of children believe it doesn’t take a year for the earth to go around the sun? Wow.

    For the sake of optimism I am going to assume that their answers are based on the fact that it does indeed take more than a year for the earth to go around the sun. Sadly, that probably isn’t what was going through their minds at the time

    (maybe: “why are they asking me these stupid questions, i have better things to do, these aren’t the SATs. i am just going to pick randomly and get it over with” – ah the joys of multiple choice)

    wishing you all well.

    chao

  17. #17 razib
    April 15, 2008

    My questions largely result from a personal bias which leads me to believe that, genetically at least, the opposite is true.

    exactly, men are genetically inferior slobs. how the hell is it civilization managed to get this far with the XY-dullards at the helm?

  18. #18 rjb
    April 15, 2008

    Sigh…

    Why is it that whenever there is a difference in performance in some intellectual ability between sexes or races, people want to leap to a genetic basis that explains the difference?

    We know that the brain is massively plastic, especially during early development. If you patch one eye early in development, then the connections between that eye and the cortex get pruned back. There are key critical, or at least sensitive, periods when the brain is highly adaptable to experience. This difference far outstrips genetic differences in the magnitude of changes that we can create in the developing brain. Carla Shatz used the phrase “use it or lose it” to describe brain function… circuits that get reinforced early in development are maintained, those that are not get pruned back.

    Sorry for the rant, but if you want to explain differences in performance between two groups based on differences in the brain, experience is the most likely candidate. Genetics will play a role, but it is going to be dwarfed by the role of experience.

  19. #19 Kambiz Kamrani
    April 15, 2008

    rjb,

    The ‘use it or lose it’ plasticity of the brain is moderated genetically. It is the interactions of gene products that allow the developing brain to be so malleable.

    Kambiz

  20. #20 frog
    April 15, 2008

    Kambiz,
    “The ‘use it or lose it’ plasticity of the brain is moderated genetically”.

    What does that mean? How can you have plasticity except in context of genetic constraints? Short of malnutrition, a blow to the head or suffocation, the only physiological atemporal constraint is genetic. “Use it or lose it” plasticity is a fairly trivial concept if its not a description of the degrees of freedom in development from simple genetic determination, ala C. Elegans.

  21. #21 rjb
    April 15, 2008

    Kambiz,

    Of course it’s mediated genetically. The question is whether allelic differences in the genes inherited, or expression pattern differences based on sex, cause a significant difference in the amount of plasticity in the process. I don’t think that type of study has ever been done.

  22. #22 Kambiz Kamrani
    April 15, 2008

    Frog,

    You’re considering that plasticity is the absence of genetic constraints and genetics and plasticity are mutually exclusive.

    They aren’t.

    The very fact that the developing brain is plastic is regulated by genes. Let me explain by using feral human children as an example. Many feral children often have irrecoverable cognitive disabilities. Looking at the data and investigating at what age many of these children are lost/abandoned/neglected, we see many of them share similar ages — early childhood. At this stage, children learn language and other cultural things. For normal children, they learn the languages they are exposed too and begin observing roles and lifestyles of other humans around them. For feral children, they usually adopt the behaviors and mimic the languages they see and hear around them. Those that were raised by canines, howl, bark, and walk on fours. Those that lived around birds, tweet and mimmic avian behavior.

    This stage in life, this time in development, where the human child learns many basic social skills, is genetically controlled. Certain genes are expressed while others aren’t, this pattern allows for the observed plasticity. After childhood, the ability for the brain to be as plastic with these matters is lost. Feral children who have entered early adolescence have a low success rate in learning to live the ‘normal’ human life.

    In this sense, plasticity should not be seen as a relaxation of genetic constraints. For all we know it could be a heavily constrained stage in development that has been selected throughout time to be malleable. Until we figure out and compare the expression pattern of genes during plastic and non-plastic stages, we must resort to what we know — all genes just don’t turn off for plasticity to emerge.

    Kambiz

  23. #23 Kambiz Kamrani
    April 15, 2008

    rjb,

    I don’t know of any study either. I think it is because it is not ethically possible to do this sort of study. In order to figure out the exact expression pattern at every stage in human development, invasive sampling must be done — i.e. isolations of mRNAs from different brain tissues throughout different stages which would be highly controversial.

    Many have made reporter-gene constructs and used a mouse model system to figure out what’s going on. But that doesn’t really tell of use of massive expression networks. Many different genome wide expression methods can be used, such as microarrays, but that’s an enormous amount of work too!

    Kambiz

  24. #24 Kambiz Kamrani
    April 15, 2008

    I do wanna point out some irony while we’re considering how well male and females are being taught… The author of this post is a female and titled this post, “Is our Children Learning?”

    It could be purposefully done tongue-in-cheek humor, but the grammatically correct way to ask this question is, “Are Our Children Learning?”

    Kambiz

  25. #25 K
    April 15, 2008

    Kambiz,

    It’s obviously a witty reference to Bush’s famous quote: “Rarely is the question asked, is our children learning?”

  26. #26 Russell Blackford
    April 16, 2008

    I didn’t know, or had forgotten, the Bush quote, but I expect that most people will have no problem getting the general idea of the joke … even without having it explained to them.

    For me, it was just like all those old jokes to the effect of someone meeting her former English teacher and reassuring the teacher, “Don’t worry, you taught us real good.”

  27. #27 bigTom
    April 17, 2008

    Given that the real recruiting pool for scientists/engineers is largely off the test chart, i.e. both male/female students with any realistic chance of making it are in the tail of the distribution, I doubt this has a lot of relevance to the subject of women in science.

    But I am a little surprised, I woulda thunk it would highly correlate with a college education. And I’ve heard the female to male ratio in US college is something like 60/40 today.

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