Tuesday, January 03, 2006

At Least One of Them Really Is Dangerous

Just minutes after I finished writing the previous post on "dangerous ideas," I stumbled across this post (via Pandagon) on a NYT opinion article by David Brooks. Unfortunately, the David Brooks article is available by subscription only, but the part of the article quoted in the post has exactly what I needed: a dangerous misuse of one of the ideas mentioned in the "dangerous ideas" post. Here's Brooks:
Her third mistake is to not even grapple with the fact that men and women are wired differently. The Larry Summers flap produced an outpouring of work on the neurological differences between men and women. I'd especially recommend "The Inequality Taboo" by Charles Murray in Commentary and a debate between Steven Pinker and Elizabeth Spelke in the online magazine Edge.

One of the findings of this research is that men are more interested in things and abstract rules while women are more interested in people. (You can come up with your own Darwinian explanation as to why.
Oh look, there's Simon Baron-Cohen again, this time in the mouth of Brooks, helping a misogynist hack to argue that women should stay home with the family instead of having careers. But there are two problems with the way Brooks uses this. First, "abstract rules" and "systematizing" aren't quite the same things. I don't know of any recent researcher who has argued that men are more interested in abstract rules specifically. I suppose it depends on what kinds of rules we're talking about.

The second problem, is that there's really no good evidence for Baron-Cohen's systematizing-empathizing distinction, and there aren't really any other explanations in cognitive science of the old stereotype that men like objects and women like people that get any attention. Elizabeth Spelke did a good job of describing the research that bears on Baron-Cohen's theory, and pointing out how none of it really supported his theory, in her in press paper on sex differences in math ability, which you can read here (the discussion of B-C's work is in the first section after the introduction, beginning on p. 5). Thus, Brooks is using a theory with no empirical support to argue for his misogynistic beliefs.

And you can't really blame Brooks; he's a rabid misogynist, and he will look for anything to justify that. You have to blame Baron-Cohen, and people like Steven Pinker, who make these claims public before they've undergone rigorous scientific scrutiny. Once they're out there, it's damn near impossible to get rid of them, no matter how many scientists come forward to say that it turns out the evidence tells a different story. Responsible scientists don't build large theories on one or two unreplicated studies, and then spend a great deal of time talking about them to the media, or writing books for laypeople about them, all the while ignoring a wealth of conflicting evidence. This, I think, is the main reason why people like me have such a strong dislike towards Evolutionary Psychologists, a dislike that goes beyond simply believing that their work is subpar. They are dangerous, not because of what they say, but because of whom they say it to.


Clark Goble said...

Isn't one problem with the "asbtract rules" assertion that one kind of abstraction gets privileged above others? It seems to me that social skills involve quite a few abstractions, as our reading of Tomasello suggested.

But beyond that it seems that it buys into the traditional guys are better at math view neglecting the obvious pedagogical issues in math teaching that affect women.

It does concern me that when people discuss abstractions though they typically mean theoretical entities as found in mathematics and the hard sciences and occasionally maps and the like.

Chris said...

Clark, I agree with everything you said. The "cognitive style" approach to the empirical differences in standardized math test scores, which has some empirical support, would argue that men and women are just using strategies that make certain types of abstraction easier to process.

And as Sean of Cosmic Variance recently noted, Pinker and others continue to miss the point of the outrage at Summers' comments, which is not about the fact that Summers referenced extant differences in math performance, but that he thinks they are innate, and ignores all of the evidence, some of which I've discussed in previous posts, that there are social factors at play.

Clark Goble said...

I agree. One thing I find very dispiriting about the current age is people saying we ought to study issues and then give some speculation that they think ought be on par with an answer. All the while ignoring the fact that research has been done and that there are empirical data. It isn't just this issue, but in so many areas of science in general.

I wonder if the information overload in society just makes it too hard to be aware of all the work that has been done in science.

rf said...

Chris, I've been following the blog for a while, and I've wondered what your thoughts are on Mel Konner. He's very roughly on the "side" of EP (he says he gives "two cheers for sociobiology"), but he seems to have a lot less self-deception--no joke intended--than a lot of his peers. I read The Tangled Wing quite a while ago, but I remember it being heavier on both real biology (more physiological than evolutionary) and humility than most "biological bases of behavior" books. It also has some really powerful sections about the environment and our future at the end. He definitely understand how dangerous it is to make bold claims while wielding "scientific" authority, and his calm, cautious approach is pretty remarkable for an MD-PhD who talks about these kinds of issues.

At least, that's what it seems like to uninformed me. Have you formed an opinion of him?

Chris said...

rf, I haven't read much of Konner's work, so I haven't really formed an opinion. I'll check out some more of his stuff, though.

Lizzie said...

I really like the last paragraph of this post. A very helpful and illuminating explanation of your dislikes...

Anonymous said...

Does this sound sexist to you? From Murray's essay:

3. The concepts of “inferiority” and “superiority” are inappropriate to group comparisons. On most specific human attributes, it is possible to specify a continuum running from “low” to “high,” but the results cannot be combined into a score running from “bad” to “good.” What is the best score on a continuum measuring aggressiveness? What is the relative importance of verbal skills versus, say, compassion? Of spatial skills versus industriousness? The aggregate excellences and shortcomings of human groups do not lend themselves to simple comparisons. That is why the members of just about every group can so easily conclude that they are God’s chosen people. All of us use the weighting system that favors our group’s strengths.

It doesn't to me. It also says nothing about to what extent any proposed innate differences will predict the behavior of any specific individual. Some people, such as myself, believe there are innate differences across different groups (the mind is not built identically across all people and born "tabula rasa"), but that these differences are expressed only nominally in the average person. Of course, there are people who are not average.

Just as there are genes that cause many "x" people to look alike with similar bone structure, there are genes that probably cause groups of people to think alike to some extent, however little (or however suppress-able) it may be.

Anonymous said...

It feels good to say there aren't any meaningful differences, lord knows I feel the same way. Everybody but scientists can justify the "feel good" position. A scientist has to be able to go further.

WWW.Edge.org has a great video debate between Spelke and Pinker on Sex Differences. Spelke tried to limit the debate to childhood comparisons before puberty. Pinker kept saying, "yes, but . . ." and discussed what happens during and after puberty, and the very real divergences at the extreme top levels of mathematics and the sciences requiring top math skills.

Chris said...

I don't think that's really what Spelke did, and I know no one is arguing that there are no "meaningful" differences. And again, Pinker's data shows no evidene of "cause," which is what Spelke was trying to get at.

Anonymous said...

Interesting blog. You know, I saw that debate with Spielke and Pinkers. I don't think Spielke was quite as spot on as you seem to think, Chris. Pinkers appeared to be far more with the program. As far as proving "causation", you must be joking, old chap. With topics this controversial, nobody's going to admit causation, even if it's forced down the gullet.

Let's just say Pinkers' evidence is compelling, and Spielke didn't confront it directly, but sidestepped like a matador.

thirsty-for-reason said...


I was the one who posted anonymously above with Murray's comment.

I love your blog by the way. I'm interested in your thoughts on the Buddhist view of coginitive processes (read Mark Epstein or Thanissaro Bhikkhu).

Anyway, I look forward to your posts and also I look forward to disagreeing with you. :-)


Anonymous said...

Asian women often score higher on math achievement scores than european men. You do not see that reflected in the professoriate at elite schools of mathematics and physics. Why is that? Clearly it has to do with the extreme rarity of talent in either gender at the highest mathematical levels. If one took the trouble to stratify european men into different ethnic extractions, the solution would spring into focus without difficulty. Do the same stratification for Nobel Prize winners and Field Prize winners. There is no mystery, only purposely closed eyes.

Some "scientists" actually try to deny the difference in variance in "g" scores between males and females. What the scientists who deal in testing discovered, is that males have a distinctly and undeniably greater variance in "g" than females. This is true across all ethnicities and cultures.

joe o said...

Even if Baron-Cohen is right, it isn't an effective critisism of Hirshman's article. Hirshman is describing the process where women who are 50% of the law school graduates become much less than 50% of the law firm partners due to family issues. It isn't clear that a Baron-Cohen style math-loving "male" brain is really what you need as a lawyer. Lawyer's have to be logical but asperger's syndrome isn't an asset.

Anonymous said...

As was proven on the latest story arc of Boston Legal!

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