Friday, December 23, 2011

A synthesis.

There was a president of Harvard University, several years ago, called Larry Summers. He gave a speech reiterating that the reason there are significantly more men than women in the higher echelons of engineering, computing and the sciences was that there could be an innate difference in the distribution of skill between the gender's. i.e. that men might have more really bright sparks but also more idiots, implying that the female bell curve was taller in the middle and didn't extend to the extremes as much. Funnily enough, he got lambasted, roll on the defenders who claimed all sorts of things in Summers defence - like that he was only getting hassled because he was putting forward an uncomfortable idea that might actually be true. I'm not inherently opposed to the idea of entertaining uncomfortable ideas, if one is ever going to get closer to understanding the truths about how our world works one has to. When the uncomfortable ideas have no basis in fact though, they should be tossed.
Anyway. That incident was brought to mind by young Myers. He cites a report published in Science (that starts off with recalling Summers speech), which did cross cultural studies which allowed them to correct for low living standards, innate variability and gender differences, even looking at differences between single and mixed sex schools. Low living standards have an effect, but over a certain minimum income, those effects tend to drop away. The innate differences that are continually suggested by commentators who don't want to entertain uncomfortable ideas (that they have no idea what's going on) disapear completely. Which leaves cultural factors. PZ nails it, I think with:
Biology sets the limits, but culture determines what you do within those boundaries, and clearly, we have lots of room for improvement in intellectual accomplishment; most people aren’t bumping up against the physical limitations of what their brains can do.
And none of that 10% of our brains crap please. Our cultures have more to do with our limitations - an example the original report provides is that only 27% of career people in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM), in the US are women. In academia it creeps up to 30%, which is still pretty pathetic. There is a significant pool of people who could be doing some really good science right now except for the fact that they have been discouraged or dissuaded. This is something that is pretty difficult to see in my field if you aren't aware of it already or don't have it pointed out. The biological sciences have some of the highest proportions of women in the STEM fields, which probably drags the overall average up - not a good thing, this just means that the other fields are worse than the 27% statistic would have you believe. The idea that males have greater variability in intellectual skills suitable for STEM, is old (1894 apparently) and tired. It keeps getting trotted out though, remember this next time you hear someone blathering one about this possibility at a party or somewhere. And shoot them down. In flames. With burning.
I'm going to have to go read the original report again, but from my initial once over, this is a good example of studying social systems. Find an effect. Find influences on that effect. Control for those influences. Look for other influences, control for those. Repeat. This is what helps us get closer to understanding how we work as a society.

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