In which John Tierney annoys me regarding women in science, part — wait, I’ve lost count

Here’s Tierney in the New York Times:

Similarly, Larry Summers, then president of Harvard, was ostracized in 2005 for wondering publicly whether the preponderance of male professors in some top math and science departments might be due partly to the larger variance in I.Q. scores among men (meaning there are more men at the very high and very low ends). “This was not a permissible hypothesis,” Dr. Haidt said. “It blamed the victims rather than the powerful. The outrage ultimately led to his resignation. We psychologists should have been outraged by the outrage. We should have defended his right to think freely.”

Instead, the taboo against discussing sex differences was reinforced, so universities and the National Science Foundation went on spending tens of millions of dollars on research and programs based on the assumption that female scientists faced discrimination and various forms of unconscious bias.

Here’s a Google Scholar search for “gender differences in cognition.” The first page of results includes the 1995 paper “Magnitude of sex differences in spatial abilities: A meta-analysis and consideration of critical variables,” by Voyer, Voyer, and Bryden, which has been cited 791 times.

Camilla Benbow’s paper Sex differences in mathematical reasoning ability in intellectually talented preadolescents: Their nature, effects, and possible causes” has been cited over 300 times:  the abstract concludes “It is therefore proposed that the sex difference in SAT-M scores among intellectually talented students, which may be related to greater male variability, results from both environmental and biological factors.”

Here’s a selection of papers from the Organization for the Study of Sex Differences, including “Evidence for sex-specific shifting of neural processes underlying learning and memory following stress,” about cognitive differences between men and women under conditions of stress.  The OSSD’s 2010 annual meeting was funded by the National Science Foundation.

All I can say is, this is some really crappy taboo enforcement.  Politically correct mandarins of academia, get on the stick!

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4 thoughts on “In which John Tierney annoys me regarding women in science, part — wait, I’ve lost count

  1. Tom Nevins says:

    If I remember correctly, one of the major criticisms directed at Summers at the time was that he hadn’t bothered to actually look at the (very extensive) literature on exactly this point. More precisely, it was claimed that Summers raised the question and proposed a mechanism but didn’t bother to wonder whether anyone had ever thought about it before, much less make an attempt to digest the literature to see whether his proposed mechanism held up. To be fair, that last sentence is probably overstating the point significantly. Still, if even a much milder version of the criticism is accurate, I can see why people in the area might be awfully annoyed.

  2. majordomo says:

    I recognize Camilla Benbow’s name. She was associated with the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth program pioneered by Julian Stanley. If I remember correctly, he too believed in innate cognitive differences between males and females, based on studying the records of the kids in his program and the ones in SMPY (Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth) cohorts.

    Jordan, if I recall, you were also part of this program, growing up in Maryland in the 80s. I’ve even seen papers by Julian Stanley citing you (not by name of course, but by your many achievements in high school). Do you agree with the conclusions (on gender differences) that Stanley and Benbow draw from studying your cohort ?

  3. T.T. says:

    Exactly what conclusions did they draw? That there are “innate cognitive differences” of some kind isn’t really controversial. But the only way that innate cognitive differences give Larry Summers a pass is if those differences are enough to explain most of (or even a significant part of) the gender ratio in science, and I haven’t seen much evidence of that—certainly nothing comparable to the evidence of a major role for the “discrimination and various forms of unconscious bias” that John Tierney tries to ignore.

  4. majordomo says:

    T.T., in their 1980 paper, Stanley and Benbow suggested that gender differences in mathematical reasoning ability may have a biological origin, and that this innate intellectual disparity is only exacerbated by environmental influences. Thus they are implying that the environmental influence is only secondary to what they consider to be the root cause, i.e. biological differences. At least that’s what I gleaned from the paper, you can read it for yourself below:

    Benbow, C. P., & Stanley J. C. (1980). Sex differences in mathematical ability: Fact or Artifact? Science, 210(12), 1262-1264

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