Monday, February 21, 2011

On The Straw-Feminist in Scientific Critiques

Cordelia Fine (whose book, Delusions of Gender , I discussed extensively in January) has written a nice post responding to some of the criticisms her book has caused. The gist of Fine's piece is this:
In the interminable sex differences debate it always seems to be those who are critical of scientific claims of essential differences who are accused of allowing political desires to blinker them to the facts of the case. A century ago a medical professional commented in the New York Times that “the dear women are ‘obsessed’ with their fitness for all things masculine which blinds them to a sane view of their biological limitations.” Today’s admonishments, sometimes only a little less condescending, suggest a way of thinking about the relationship between politics and science that is inspired by stereotypes: the agenda-driven feminist who requires everyone to ignore what does not fit her ideology; and the detached spokesperson of science.
And so, in the aftermath of the Summers controversy Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker suggested that the “taboo” of innate sex differences drove a “refusal to glance at the scientific literature”. In a more recent commentary, entitled “Daring to discuss women in science”, New York Times columnist John Tierney quipped that the evidence presented in his article put him at “risk of being shipped off” to a gender equity workshop (a hellish fate, indeed), and asked whether it would be “safe” in such a workshop “for someone to mention the new evidence supporting Dr. Summers’s controversial hypothesis about differences in the sexes’ aptitude for math and science”.
A similar theme emerged when The Sexual Paradox author Susan Pinker was asked to comment on my book, which argues that we don’t yet know whether, on average, males and females are born differently predisposed to understanding the world versus understanding people. Pinker responded that the results of scientific investigations of sex differences “describe what is, not what we might choose if we were designing a perfect world. These are compelling studies that add to our understanding of human development. Why would we ignore them?” And while a review of my book by The Essential Difference author and Cambridge psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen generously acknowledged its scholarship, the instantly recognizable stereotype was nonetheless lurking in all its unalluring glory: I was “strident”; in pursuit of a “barely veiled agenda”; and guilty of the “mistaken blurring of science with politics.”
Again and again, the target is a familiar one and should be recognized for what it is: a straw-feminist.
Fine does a fine and gentle take on all these arguments which essentially (hah!) boil down to the assumption that to have a null hypothesis of "no biological gender difference" is biased but to have as null hypothesis "a biological gender difference exists and most likely is to the advantage of men" is not biased but doing cold-blooded and unbiased science.

For that is what I see happening in the literature of those who criticize Fine for bringing politics into science. As I have written before, the very field of "gender differences" is already loaded with the assumption that one looks for differences. Naturally one will be awfully sad when one finds them as one would much prefer a world where they don't exist but facts are facts.

Once the "facts" are criticized (as was done in all the three books I discussed in my January series), that, too, somehow turns into politicking. Miraculous.

Simon Baron-Cohen is one of the people who criticized Cordelia Fine for mixing politics with science. Baron-Cohen's own theory (in Essential Difference) argues that people have either a female brain (strong on empathizing, low on systematizing ability which really means analytical ability), a male brain (strong on systematizing, low on empathizing) or a balanced brain (equal in both skills). That only about 40% of women in his tests appear to possess a female brain has not stopped this particular pattern of naming.

The roots of Baron-Cohen's theory can be found in autism. He believes that autistic individuals have extreme male brains, high on systematizing and very low on the ability to empathize. At the end of the book Essential Difference, he speculates what might happen if we ever found an extreme female brain, one high on empathizing but very low on systematizing ability. I quote:
When we find someone with the extreme female brain, my guess is that we also find that society has made it easy for them to find a niche and a value, without that person having to feel they must in some way hide their systemblindness.

I hope that at least one benefit of this book is that society might become more accepting of essential sex differences in the mind, and make it easier for someone with the extreme male brain to find their niche and for us to acknowledge their value. They should not feel the need to hide their mindblindness (as many currently do).

Remember that this is pure speculation. Nobody has met a person with "an extreme female brain," but Baron-Cohen believes that we would treat that person much better than we treat people with autism. This is not science but an opinion.

Baron-Cohen continues:
A central tenet of this book is that the male and female brains differ from each other, but that overall one is no better or worse than the other. Hopefully, in reading this book, men will also experience a resurgence of pride at the things they can do well, things like being able to work out confidently how to program a new appliance in the home, being able quickly to discover how to use a new piece of software, or how to fix something with whatever available tools and materials are around. All these need good systematizing skills.
Hmm. It sounds like Baron-Cohen thinks men can't currently feel pride in their technical skills. In fact, that whole bit sounds like gender politics. But Baron-Cohen can still criticize Fine for the same.

By the way, the test Baron-Cohen uses to MEASURE systematizing abilities has the following questions, all of them biased or tilted towards not systematizing per se (after all, there are all sorts of systems), but towards tasks which gender role division assigns to men or towards traditionally male interests (collecting coins or stamps, following football scores, anything to do with machines):

5. If I were buying a car, I would want to obtain specific information about its engine capacity.
7. If there was a problem with the electrical wiring in my home, I'd be able to fix it myself.
11. I rarely read articles or Web pages about new technology.
13. I am fascinated by how machines work.
18. I find it difficult to understand instruction manuals for putting appliances together.
25. If I had a collection (e.g. CDs, coins, stamps), it would be highly organized.
26. When I look at a piece of furniture, I do not notice the details of how it was constructed.
29. When I read the newspaper, I am drawn to tables of information, such as football scores or stock market indices.
37. When I look at a building, I am curious about the precise way it was constructed.


What about Stephen Pinker? Is he as unbiased as he insists? His book The Blank Slate has a whole chapter on gender. That chapter sets out to prove that though feminism is of course a wonderful thing (wonderful!), women have both innately different abilities and innately different interests than men and THIS is the reason why so few women can be found in the hard sciences.

The economics references in that chapter omit 90% of the actually relevant studies in economics but borrow liberally from polemic pieces by members of the Independent Women's Forum, a right-wing gal's hit squad against feminists. But that's not my main problem with the book and its treatment of gender. It's the omission of differences in violence and crime rates from the gender chapter. Violence is treated elsewhere, as a general human problem.

It's a very subtle thing, sure, but a book which puts all the gender differences which appear to benefit men into one chapter about gender and then discusses those gender differences which appear to benefit women elsewhere is not exactly neutrally scientific. In my humble view.

I hope you read Fine's much more careful take and then come back to re-read mine.