The Problem With Innate Differences

In yesterday’s post about the experience of science, I mentioned that I had both a specific complaint about the article by Alexandra Jellicoe (which I explained in the post) and a general complaint about the class in which the article falls. I want to attempt to explain the latter problem, partly because I think it will be useful, but mostly because it’s stuck in my head, and I need to at least type out the explanation before I can move on to other things.

The article in question doesn’t contain all of the elements I’ll mention below, but I think it clearly falls into a class of articles that I find troublesome. A slightly snarky summary of the class would be: “Women are innately more cooperative and intuitive than men, and how dare you suggest they’re bad at math!” The problem with these articles is that they’re trying to walk a difficult line, and they’re often not clear about what it is that they’re doing, to bad effect.

The Jellicoe article that started me thinking about this is only explicitly making one claim: that women and men have different innate tendencies with respect to how they work. This is essentially a scientific claim, an assertion that research shows that men and women have different neural structure, and that the observed difference in approaches to problem solving is innate to the sexes, and not the product of socialization.

There’s a second, implicit, claim in the article, though, which is that this is the only relevant difference when it comes to science. If, as the article asserts, the real problem women in science face is that the structure goes against the innate operations of their brains, that implies a belief that there is no sex-specific difference in aptitude for science (whatever that might mean– numerical abilities, spatial skills, one or more of the many other things that have been suggested over the years).

This is the problem area, though. Because if you’re going to claim that science is inherently sexist because of the innate structure of women’s brains, that means you have to at least allow the possibility of other sex-specific differences. Which necessarily means allowing the possibility of some factor that makes women less inclined to pursue science, or less well suited to a career in science. If brain structure and not socialization is responsible for the different ways men and women behave, then there’s a chance that there’s some other difference in brain structure that makes women less likely to become scientists even when conditions are less oppressive than the description I took issue with yesterday.

So, really, what articles of this type are trying to do involves two scientific claims: first, that research supports the idea that men and women are best suited to different styles of interaction; and second, that research does not support the idea that men and women differ significantly in their general aptitude for science (again, whatever that may mean). I think it’s perfectly legitimate to make an argument along these lines. It would not be without controversy, but what little I know of the research in these areas suggests it’s possible to do.

The problem is, these are often not treated as two scientific claims, but rather one scientific claim and one that is more in the line of a moral principle. That is, the suggestion that women are innately different than men in the way that they organize their activities and work with others is a scientific matter, and a reasonable topic of discussion and research, while the claim that women might have less aptitude for science than men in some vaguely defined but innate way is completely outrageous, and making that suggestion is the kind of thing that should cost people their jobs.

I hasten to add (though it probably won’t do any good) that Jellicoe’s article doesn’t explicitly do both of these things, and I am not familiar enough with her writing to know whether she does so elsewhere. The article just started me thinking about the subject, and led to the realization of why I find arguments from innate differences so dodgy, which is that the scientific version of the first claim does not fit comfortably with the moral version of the second.

If you’re going to assert that the structure of science and its institutions is inherently biased against women due to innate differences in brain structure or chemistry or whatever, you have to also allow the possibility that innate differences make women less inclined to be scientists for some other reason. Trying to treat one of these claims as a legitimate argument backed by research while the other is a graven-in-stone moral principle doesn’t work, and gives the impression that it’s only acceptable to discuss innate differences between the sexes when those innate differences are flattering to women. Which is a ridiculous way to have a discussion, and leads lots of people to not wanting to discuss the subject at all.

(In a way, this is sort of the mirror image of my reaction to discussions of innate differences in IQ– in that case, they’re so often used as cover for creepy racism that any mention of IQ makes me take a step back. In this case, the claim is positive, rather than negative, but it’s the same sort of “this won’t end well” indicator.)

My personal, almost entirely anecdote-based, opinion is that if there are any innate differences in either cognitive structure or scientific aptitude, they’re vastly smaller than the individual variation in those properties. The vast majority of the observed difference between men and women strikes me as social, not biological in origin. This is, however, not a claim that I am in a good position to back up with piles of research, my study of the subject being limited to the occasional unavoidable Internet discussion.

I may, however, be willing to illustrate the claim with adorable toddler pictures. So, you know, there’s that to look forward to.

Comments

  1. #1 Rosie Redfield
    October 24, 2010

    This post nicely spells out issues that I hadn’t clearly recognized yet. Thanks.

  2. #2 Kea
    October 24, 2010

    The research clearly shows that innate differences in maths ability are completely swamped by discrimination, when it comes to the leaky pipeline. Women do just as well as men now at the lower levels – after only 30 or so years of trying. But at every level, the FRACTION of women in STEM fields drops. Especially at the postdoc level. Especially when there aren’t enough jobs for Big Buddy’s golden boys.

  3. #3 Kea
    October 24, 2010

    The research clearly shows that innate differences in maths ability are completely swamped by discrimination, when it comes to the leaky pipeline. Women do just as well as men now at the lower levels – after only 30 or so years of trying. But at every level, the FRACTION of women in STEM fields drops. Especially at the postdoc level. Especially when there aren’t enough jobs for Big Buddy’s golden boys.

  4. #4 Alexander Woo
    October 24, 2010

    I don’t think you have grasped the full implications of the moral argument.

    Suppose we have a significant societal activity X (such as science).

    Suppose society has two large populations A and B (such as men and women) with some scientifically proven difference in the tendencies as to how they work.

    Now on to the moral claim. You are still trying to take the moral claim as a claim that general aptitude of A and B at activity X are equal, and understanding that claim as an empirical statement about the world.

    Moral claims, however, are not empirical statements about the world. They are tautological, definitional statements about the world we wish to have.

    What the moral claim is saying is that if there is something about X which favors A over B (or vice versa), then there is something fundamentally immoral about the way X is practiced. It does not matter what this something is. This something could be a scientifically proven innate difference.

    It could be that this scientifically proven innate difference is fundamentally important to the practice of X, in which case we have to balance the fundamental immorality of practicing X with the fundamental immorality of not practicing X or not practicing X optimally. (Presumably, the practice of X produces some important benefits for society, so not doing X as well as possible has a moral dimension.)

  5. #5 Alex
    October 24, 2010

    First, between Alexander Woo, Alexander Jellicoe, and me, there are a lot of Alex’s here! :)

    Second, even if we’re going to ponder genetic factors in gender disparities, we can run into problems even if we don’t consider theories of women being (on average) less likely to possess some particular talent due to genes. (I hasten to add that there is zero evidence that would justify pondering such a theory.) We could posit that women are in fact as good or better at everything, but because of difference in how they think (on average) they are especially good at some particular activity. If so, then the theory of comparative advantage would suggest that women should focus on that, and if that activity is not science, well, there you go, men get to have science to themselves.

    Now, I’m not endorsing that theory. Far from it. There is abundant evidence of sexism driving away talented women. There is little or no evidence of inherent differences that would favor women, and zero evidence of inherent differences that would disadvantage women. When Jellicoe starts postulating that women just think differently, she isn’t just granting legitimacy to theories that Larry Summers and his ilk would like to ponder. She’s also discounting the effects of the very real sexism that women encounter, something that has zero to do with their genes and everything to do with the unethical behavior of many men.

    So, enough of the essentialist/genetic arguments.

  6. #6 Mary
    October 24, 2010

    Some of us women in science have been uncomfortable with this sort of “difference feminism” for a long time, for this very reason.

  7. #7 Alex
    October 24, 2010

    Mary,

    The problem with arguing against “difference feminism” is that it’s really hard to argue against a theory that is on the surface entirely flattering. You either have to be all “Nuh-uh! Women are NOT all that great at communication and collaboration and creative thinking!” or argue what I did in my comment, which comes dangerously close to “Well, if you really want to go there, then let’s have at it!”

    Either argument is hard for a decent person to pull off. It can be done with some relative anonymity (although a few people here know who I am, there’s no shortage of Alex’s in science) and the option to revise before hitting “submit”. Both of those advantages are present online. But sitting in a workshop or meeting, in person, well, not so much.

  8. #8 Rob Knop
    October 24, 2010

    See “The Blank Slate” by Stephen Pinker about how a moral imperative about how our brains *must* work shouted down research about how they really worked for a long time. The idea was that there was no human nature at all, that it was all nurture, and thus anything bad we did was because society was so evil. The notion of nature, so the argument went, was just a horrible conservative plot to instil social darwinism or eugenics or some such. Unfortunately for the moral argument, the reality was that there is such a thing as human nature, and how you turn out is a product not just of nature, not just of nurture, but of some complicated mix of both. (I think psychologists all pretty much agree on this right now, although I also think they still get into big arguments about whether its 45%/55% or 55%/45%….)

    The danger of tying a moral principle (i.e. nondiscrimination) to a moral assertion about the nature of something in reality (i.e. that women and men possess exactly the same aptitude for “math”, whatever that actually means) is twofold. First, your adherence to your moral principle can blind you to research that contradicts it. Second, if research does contradict it, it undermines the basis for which you’ve argued for your moral principle. The moral principle of nondiscrimination stands on its own, even without the need to assert that there is no intrinsic difference between how men and women think, I believe. And, as somebody else noted, if there are any differences, the effect of those differences is at the moment completely overwhelmed by the systematic sexism that has existed and continues to exist.

  9. #9 Kea
    October 24, 2010

    Yes, Rob has nicely summed it up. I think we all agree that the post in question is very icky, but our host is often negligent in noting the proven discrimination that exists.

  10. #10 Alex
    October 24, 2010

    Unfortunately for the moral argument, the reality was that there is such a thing as human nature, and how you turn out is a product not just of nature, not just of nurture, but of some complicated mix of both. (I think psychologists all pretty much agree on this right now, although I also think they still get into big arguments about whether its 45%/55% or 55%/45%….)

    This might be a problem for moral arguments that assume equality of all individuals. If nature imposes differences between individuals, well, then it does.

    However, it is not automatically a problem for moral arguments that propose statistical equality between groups. It may be that not all individuals are good at math, and some of those individual differences are derived from nature rather than nurture. However, the natural components of math ability could still be evenly distributed among groups, so that while no 2 individuals are guaranteed to have the same mathematical ability, the number of mathematically talented men and women (or whatever other groups you wish to compare) will still be equal.

  11. #11 Alexandra Jellicoe
    October 25, 2010

    Hello Chad

    Many thanks for adding to this debate. Your views are most interesting.

    I am keen to reply but currently waylaid by work. I hope to have some time to post something this evening!

    Very best
    Alex

  12. #12 Abina
    October 25, 2010

    I am completely with Chad on that any innate differences are much smaller than the variations within the respective groups. Very often when I read this type of discussions and the original articles that provoke them I suspect that the generalizations that authors make about “the female way of thinking” and various other fuzzily defined concepts are very biased by how that specific author perceives her own thinking and rationalizes her own experiences with hard science. And when said author is a social scientist/humanitarian, as most of them are, that is a strong bias indeed. I am a female physics researcher and I find that I think much more like my colleagues of either sex than any of the humanities-minded people I met. I am a bit worried about what it means in terms of education majors figuring out the best way to teach kids science…

  13. #13 yogi-one
    October 25, 2010

    My personal, almost entirely anecdote-based, opinion is that if there are any innate differences in either cognitive structure or scientific aptitude, they’re vastly smaller than the individual variation in those properties.

    I’m down with that. I also only have personal experience to draw on, but I have seen enough “intuitive” men and “left brain analytical” women to know that it isn’t the y-chromosome causing these traits. There are brutal, politicking, agressive women as well as men. And there are some guys who are gentle and always show respect even in heated debate. So I am not seeing the “women are from Venus, men are from Mars” thing. Too many Venusian men and Martian women out there for me to buy that.

    Also, separating out the issues being raised is necessary.

    Institionalized sexism needs to be confronted, and rooted out wherever possible. I have seen no disagreement on that principle here.

    But I agree that different styles of working are far more individual-centered than due to any blanket principle that, socially and psychologically, men are one way and women are another.

    And the debate wades into muddy water when the issues are all confused and people make big unprovable assertions.

  14. #14 gotryhag
    October 25, 2010

    This American phenomenon with girls and science is curious and weirdly alien to me. Here in Finland, the case of women and science is completely opposite. Even in my line of study of molecular biology, the majority of students are women. And everybody here says that “girls are way better at math than boys”, and that “boys need more attention to do well in school” and so on. It’s just so… Weird to think that having too few women in science is a problem somewhere. In other places than saudi-arabia, obviously.

  15. #15 In Hell's Kitchen
    October 25, 2010

    apparently Jelllicoe has been reading too much of Luce Irigaray’s rants
    to believe that science is not much more than an exercise in phallocentric
    discourse hence turning women off.

    However, I think there’s milage in the assertion that E=mc2 is a “sexed
    equation” because “it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that
    are vitally necessary to us”; and in the assertion that fluid mechanics is
    unfairly neglected because it deals with “feminine” fluids in contrast to
    “masculine” rigid mechanics.

    A blog on this will be highly illuminating !

    I think another screening of

  16. #16 Steven
    October 26, 2010

    I am certainly not fully up on the research on the difference sex plays in cognitive abilities, but what I see is that asking that question is often considered to be taboo, which I find sad. There is certainly good reason to suspect that there would be some difference, considering that we know how different the average body chemistry between men and women is, and how chemistry in the brain has such a strong effect on people. (We also know of such major variations even within the sexes about body chemistry…) I think, without strong evidence, the default position would be that differences between the sexes exist, on average, although what those differences are to me seems completely unknown. The important question in my mind isn’t whether differences exist (I think its interesting, but ultimately unimportant in its answer), but whether or not we treat the sexes differently because of it.

    And, the answer is no, we shouldn’t treat the sexes any different, because, as Chad says, the variation between the sexes seems so much larger than any differences in the averages. Not everyone becomes scientists, and the people who do are generally really good at whatever cognitive functioning is required by that branch of science. They are at the tail of the bell curve so to speak already, so differences in the averages are really irrelevant and should never play any difference in opportunities available for one sex over the other.

  17. #17 Douglas Watts
    October 26, 2010

    Ahh … another desperate “scienceblogs” topic revisiting a pedantic, offensive question everyone but the author internally resolved in 500 B.C.

    Golf Clap for ‘scienceblogs.’

    What’s next, ‘innate differences’ between white and black male scientists?

  18. #18 Mike Lisieski
    November 6, 2010

    “The problem with arguing against “difference feminism” is that it’s really hard to argue against a theory that is on the surface entirely flattering.”

    I think a good policy is to define “sexist” as “unjustifiably biased towards one sex or the other”, and then avoid making or entertaining sexist statements. If it has been shown that women develop social skills more easily than men (or something like that,) that claim is not sexist – it’s fact, and it shouldn’t be over-stated (ie. used to support sexist ways of thought) or understated (ie. ignored because it superficially resembles a sexist idea.)

    Apparently positive stereotypes are still unfair and can still be harmful – it’s just because they’re stereotypes. Men are supposed to be “strong” – this sounds nice, but it really means that men will be socially punished for being emotional, something which I, for one, like to do some times. Men are supposed to be good at things like math, engineering, and building because they’re “logical” and “methodic” – this sounds nice, but men who choose to go into theatre or dance are ridiculed because of this apparently positive stereotype. There are many such oppressive, apparently positive (and often scientifically unfounded) ideas about both femininity and masculinity, and few of them are worth seriously entertaining. The bottom line is that each person is complex, and it’s impossible to categorized people in a substantial way based on their gender or sex. To deny this by collapsing the world into dichotomies (regardless of whether they sound flattering) will hurt any project we could undertake to try to minimize sexist, because it would base those projects on sexism.