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.