Monday, December 03, 2007

Showdown at Sex Gap: Women's intrinsic math and science aptitude divides scientists

There are many more women than men at universities these days and these lulus are still talking of a "bias" against women? Evidence is obviously the least of their interests. Article below by Bruce Bower

Here's a good way to inflame the tempers of all those within earshot. Do as former Harvard University President Lawrence Summers did in 2005 and suggest that the relatively low number of high-achieving women in mathematics and science partly reflects a lack of an inherent aptitude for such pursuits. Summers lost his job in the campuswide tumult that followed his remarks. But in the ambiguous world of research on sex differences and their influence on math and science abilities, Summers' saga prompted new attempts to clarify what scientists know and how their data apply to education and test taking.

At an Oct. 1 meeting at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in Washington, D.C., scientists tried to hash out why females lag behind males in math and science achievement. Participants focused considerable attention on a recent extensive review that found a place for sex-related biological disparities in explaining such achievement differences as well as on an earlier report that dismissed biology as a factor. The latter report was issued in 2006 by the 18-member Committee on Maximizing the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering, convened by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). "It is not lack of talent," the committee concluded, "but unintentional biases and outmoded institutional structures that are hindering the access and advancement of women" in technical fields.

Controversy greeted the NAS report, notes psychologist Susan M. Barnett of the University of Cambridge, England. Some researchers suggested that committee members held their own biases against acknowledging any sex-related biological differences in math and science aptitude. Enter a consensus statement, published in the August Psychological Science in the Public Interest, written by six researchers with varying takes on the reasons for sex differences. They conclude that "early experience, biological factors, educational policy, and cultural context affect the number of women and men who pursue advanced study in science and math" and that "these effects add and interact in complex ways."

Psychologist Diane F. Halpern of Claremont (Calif.) McKenna College directed work on the consensus statement. She also spoke about sex differences to the NAS committee during its deliberations. "Can we increase the number of women who enter careers in science and math? Yes," Halpern asserts. "Is there evidence of a sex-related biological component to success in science and math? Yes."

What difference? At the AEI sessions, two psychologists challenged the assumption that biology in any way undermines women's math and science proficiency. Psychologist Rosalind C. Barnett of Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., noted that several research reviews-including analyses conducted by Janet S. Hyde of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a contributor to the consensus statement-find no or minimal sex differences in math and science aptitude. Although more males than females earn extremely high scores on standardized math tests, such scores predict surprisingly little about who will succeed in math and science careers, Barnett says. Among college-educated men with math, science, or engineering jobs, less than one-third scored 650 or better out of 800 on the math portion of the SAT.

Men's monopoly on high-level math and science achievements derives largely from unfair social and institutional advantages, the Brandeis psychologist says. For the past several hundred years, social forces have limited women's access to education and employment in the sciences, Barnett argues. Now, women receive the same education as men do but struggle against academic undercurrents of bias, she says.

One study, cited in the NAS report, evaluated peer-reviewers' ratings of applications for postdoctoral fellowships in Sweden. Researchers found that a woman had to be twice as productive as a man in publishing research and in other areas of scientific achievement in order to be judged equally competent.

Productivity aside, boys and girls possess the same three mental systems at the core of mathematical and scientific reasoning, according to Harvard University psychologist Elizabeth Spelke, a member of the NAS committee. "Evidence to date does not favor the hypothesis of a male advantage in intrinsic aptitude for math and science," Spelke says. From infancy on, in her view, all typically developing children rely on one mental system that represents and reasons about objects, another that represents and reasons about numbers, and a third that does the same for geometric relations. For instance, preschool-age boys and girls are equally adept at tracking items moving among distracting objects on a computer screen. Moreover, infants of both sexes recognize approximate quantities of items.

Spelke and her coworkers have also tested 6- to 10-year-olds in the United States and in a remote Amazonian population for the ability to recognize relationships among simple visual forms and basic geometric concepts, such as distance and angle. Overall, boys and girls performed comparably well on more than 40 geometric problems, Spelke says. Boys displayed superiority only on a mental-rotation problem, which requires a skill often incorrectly portrayed as the ultimate indicator of spatial ability, she argues.


Neuroscientist Richard J. Haier of the University of California, Irvine got plenty of flak 20 years ago when he talked about possible intelligence-related brain differences between men and women. Now he gets a friendlier reception from people who attend his public lectures, even if such work still makes many academics uneasy. "The NAS committee prematurely dismissed biological research on sex differences," Haier says. "The new consensus statement waffles a bit on the biological research as well." Men and women display comparable general-intelligence levels, on a measure derived from IQ scores. Yet the brain may foster intelligence differently in the two sexes, Haier suggests.

In the April Behavioral and Brain Sciences, he and Rex E. Jung of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque reviewed 37 brain scan investigations of intelligence published to date. They concluded that parts of the parietal and frontal cortex, in concert with a few other neural regions, form a network that orchestrates individual differences in intelligence and reasoning. Studies suggest that this network critically supports men's intellect, including mathematical reasoning, Haier says. The same brain network modestly contributes to how well women do on various achievement tests.

Two large investigations conducted by separate teams indicate that girls call on a more distributed network of neural areas during reasoning tasks than boys do. The new consensus statement suggests that male brains often rely on enhanced communication within each hemisphere, as indicated by measurements of large numbers of neural connections on each side of the brain in men. In contrast, female brains may specialize in communication across hemispheres, the consensus statement proposes, with extra assistance from language-related areas.

Neural clues coincide with what researchers know about the development of math and science expertise among mathematically talented youth. Researchers have tracked the accomplishments of more than 5,000 individuals from junior high school to middle age. As 12- to 13-year-olds, about 500 scored 700 or more on the SAT math test or 630 or more on the SAT verbal test, placing them within the top 1 percent of test takers. More boys than girls received the highest math scores, although this gap has narrowed over the past decade to about four boys for every girl.

A larger proportion of mathematically talented males than females entered math and science careers, according to psychologist and study director Camilla P. Benbow of Vanderbilt University in Nashville. However, mathematically talented girls displayed a broader range of verbal strengths than boys did and often achieved advanced degrees in areas that required all of their skills, such as law, medicine, and the social sciences. "Men choose more object-oriented jobs and women choose more people-oriented jobs, but so what?" remarks psychologist David Geary of the University of Missouri-Columbia. "Men and women report no differences in life satisfaction."

Neuroscientist Simon Baron-Cohen of the University of Cambridge in England suspects that sex differences involved in intelligence and social interest emerge early in life, possibly as a result of fetal exposure to varying levels of the sex hormone testosterone. In several studies conducted since 2002, his team has found that high testosterone concentrations-identified in amniotic fluid during pregnancy-predict a youngster's tendency to avoid eye contact and to display a limited vocabulary at age 18 months as well as to show oral-communication difficulties at age 4. These children typically show special interest in analyzing rule-based systems, involving computers, cars, and mathematics, for example. By age 8, they find it difficult to take another person's perspective and to react appropriately in social situations. Boys display elevated testosterone concentrations more often than girls do, although some girls show this pattern as well, Baron-Cohen says. He theorizes that autism develops in extreme cases of fetal-testosterone overload and often fosters mathematical talent, despite its other drawbacks.

Certain patterns of sex differences indicate that evolution sculpted male and female intellectual capacities along different lines, asserts Geary. For instance, in a 2005 study, school-age boys scored better on tests of spatial rotation and map reading than girls did, but only if the boys lived in middle- or upper-income families. Low-income children exhibited no such sex differences. In other words, Geary says, males showed a special sensitivity to poverty that eliminated their superiority on spatial tasks. This fits with the hypothesis that, by taking charge of long-distance journeys, big-game hunting, and warfare during the Stone Age, males evolved an affinity for spatial tasks. Early deprivation affects the brain in ways that undermine males' evolved spatial aptitude, Geary proposes. Still, the consensus statement, to which Geary contributed, notes that scientists sharply disagree about whether evolutionary forces lie behind the sex gap.


In 1995, psychologists Claude Steele of Stanford University and Joshua Aronson of New York University administered an achievement test to college students. One set of students was told that the test measured intelligence, whereas another group was told that the test was simply a research tool. Each group contained both black and white students. Whites performed much better than blacks when taking a purported intelligence test, but the racial groups scored comparably well when they regarded the same test more neutrally. Steele and Aronson attributed this result to what they called stereotype threat, a sense of discomfort and distraction arising from subtle reminders of a group's negative reputation in a situation. For example, anxiety about having read that blacks do poorly on IQ tests might have interfered with black students' performance on the "intelligence test."

Numerous laboratory studies have implicated stereotype threat as a drain on the intellectual abilities and test proficiency of women as well as blacks. At the AEI meeting, Aronson described a study in which female college students performed especially poorly compared to male students on a spatial rotation test after having been asked to indicate their sex. However, much of the sex-related disparity disappeared when male and female test-takers were first reminded that they all attended an elite college. "Cultural ideas about group differences can exacerbate or lessen those differences," Aronson says. "Intervention can boost performance and nurture intelligence so that biology need not mean destiny."

However, stereotype-threat research draws fire for saying little about real-world, high-stakes testing situations. "The claims routinely made on behalf of stereotype threat are vastly exaggerated," says neurologist and law professor Amy Wax of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. She uses social science research to examine public-policy issues.

Stereotype-threat studies often begin by statistically adjusting for the unequal prior test scores of men and women or of blacks and whites. Performance is then contrasted between groups either exposed to or protected from stereotype threat. Psychologist Paul R. Sackett of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and his coworkers argue that this approach indicates only that, absent stereotype threat, men and women, or blacks and whites, would display the same achievement gaps as they did before the experiment. Moreover, stereotype-threat studies have not examined male and female samples that reflect the sex gap in math performance observed in the general population. As a result, it's impossible to estimate whether stereotype threat accounts for 90 percent of that gap, 5 percent of it, or some other proportion, Wax says.

Psychologist Lawrence J. Stricker of the Education Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., doubts that stereotype threat sways scores on actual achievement tests. In a 2004 study, Stricker and a colleague collected information on race and sex either before or after 1,652 high school students took an advanced-placement test in calculus. The researchers did the same for 1,341 incoming community college students taking a battery of placement tests. Stereotype threat, in the form of being reminded of one's race and sex before the test, did not lower women's calculus or math scores. Neither did it lower black students' overall scores on the two tests.

However, a reanalysis of Stricker's data using a looser statistical standard of success found that stereotype threat indeed lowered women's calculus scores. Psychologists Kelly Danaher and Christian S. Crandall, both of the University of Kansas in Lawrence, estimate that 5.9 percent more women and 4.7 percent fewer men would receive passing scores if they indicated their sex after taking the test rather than before. This "simple, small, and inexpensive change" would boost the number of U.S. women receiving advanced-placement calculus credit by more than 4,700 annually, Crandall says. Stricker calls that conclusion "sensational but unwarranted." Crandall's projection is unreliable because the original advanced-placement sample was not chosen to represent the sex gap among all test takers, he says.

However this dispute shakes out, the rampant sexism that math- and science-oriented women struggled against in past decades shows signs of decay. As one young woman who recently earned an undergraduate degree in biochemistry and pharmacology put it at the AEI meeting, "Most of my professors didn't look up from their podium long enough to realize that I was a woman, much less care. When I would fail an exam, I wouldn't say, 'Gosh, I wish my brain was more predisposed to science.' It was 'I really should have studied a hell of a lot harder than I did.'"

Science News Online, Week of Nov. 24, 2007; Vol. 172, No. 21


Dutch lawmaker planning film criticizing the Quran

A Dutch conservative lawmaker said Wednesday he is making a film to highlight what he describes as "fascist" passages in the Quran, his latest high profile criticism of Islam. The interior and justice ministers said they were concerned, but believed they had no authority to prevent the lawmaker, Geert Wilders, from screening his film. Wilders plans to depict parts of the Quran he says are used as inspiration "by bad people to do bad things." Less than 10 minutes long, the film is expected to air in late January. It will show "the intolerant and fascist character of the Quran," said Wilders, whose anti-Islam campaign helped his Freedom Party win nine seats in parliament in last year's election.

In the past, Wilders has said that half the Quran should be torn up and compared it with Adolf Hitler's book "Mein Kampf." He has claimed the Netherlands is being swamped by a "tsunami" of Islamic immigrants. Immigrants from Muslim countries number about 1 million of the country's 16 million people.

Wilders' planned broadcast is reminiscent of the film "Submission" - a fictional study of abused Muslim women with scenes of near-naked women with Quranic texts engraved on their flesh. "Submission" director Theo van Gogh was shot and had his throat slit by a Muslim extremist on an Amsterdam street in 2004. Prominent Muslim critic Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who wrote the screenplay, was threatened in a note left on Van Gogh's body. She now lives under round-the-clock protection in the United States.

Justice Ministry spokesman Wim van der Weegen said the government is "taking measures" before the broadcast of Wilders' film. He declined to elaborate. "Based on the discussion, the ministers have expressed concern," Van der Weegen said. "But at the same time (they) have said that Mr. Wilders has freedom of expression."

Wilders said he is not afraid of reprisals if his film angers Muslims. "I have lived with 24-hour protection for three years," he said. "I will make the film and see what reaction it creates." Dutch Muslim leaders did not immediately return calls seeking comment.



`Why make a big deal about free speech?' a student asked me after one of my lectures recently. Such a cynical attitude towards the principle of free speech is common today. An army of self-selected censors is currently demanding: `How dare the Oxford Union invite Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party, and the anti-Semitic historian David Irving to participate in one of its debates?' The fevered response to tonight's debate on free speech and extremism at the Oxford Union highlights the exhaustion of a genuine democratic commitment to freedom of expression. If there is one powerful argument in favour of holding the debate, it is as a way of countering this illiberal outlook.

There was a time when those who called themselves radical or progressive marched and struggled for the realisation of the right to freedom of speech. These days, so-called progressives are far more likely to demonstrate against the right of people that they don't like to speak openly. They demand the censorship of public expressions of extremist views. Mainstream public figures and officials embrace the role of the censor, and proclaim that freedom of speech is not an `absolute right'. In an era that finds it difficult to uphold any absolutes - absolute truth, absolute good - the devaluation of speech from an absolute freedom to a conditional one fits in well with the prevailing `common sense'. However, once a right ceases to be an `absolute', it becomes a negotiable commodity. Devaluing the freedom of speech so that it becomes a relative right (in other words, a privilege) simply means upholding the right to speak of those whom we like, and censoring the views of people we find obnoxious or offensive.

The censorious response to the Oxford Union debate comes at a time when attacks on freedom of speech are being widely institutionalised. In recent years, numerous laws have been introduced to punish various forms of speech as `incitement to religious hatred', `glorifying terrorism' or `expressing homophobic views'. The New Labour government is set to launch a new crusade against the expression of extremist views on university campuses. Such illiberal attitudes are not confined to Labour. Julian Lewis, the Tory shadow defence secretary, sought to capture the limelight with his very public resignation from the Oxford Union over the Irving/Griffin debate. Of course, Lewis informed us, he is not against free speech - well, he is not absolutely against it. `I think there are people who are confusing this with an issue of free speech', he said. In fact, there is no confusion here; this is a free speech issue.

The moral rehabilitation of censorship

Censorship, of course, has a long history. In Roman times, two magistrates, or `censors', were charged not only with counting the population but also with supervising public morals. Although in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries censorship was frequently driven by a political imperative, its aim remained essentially to police moral behaviour. Twenty-first censorship continues this tradition. Yet today, censorship is not simply pursued by the state or religious authorities; advocacy groups, educators, media organisations and professionals are also actively engaged in rhetorical crusades to ban certain words and/or to promote their own favoured view of the world.

In modern times there has never been an era such as ours, where language is so carefully regulated and policed by both public and private institutions. The main reason for this development is the ascendancy of the belief that words can hurt people far more than we previously suspected, and that people have a right to be protected from harmful words. It is a sign of the times that, today, acts of censorship are not seen for what they really are: the coercive regulation of everyday communication and the repression and stigmatisation of certain ideas. Instead, they tend to be looked upon as enlightened attempts to prevent people from being offended or as a sensible way of minimising conflict.

Words are frequently depicted as weapons that can traumatise and psychologically damage their targets. As a result, the right to free speech often competes with the right not to be offended. From this standpoint, censorship is perceived, not as a form of authoritarian intrusion, but as an enlightened measure designed to protect the vulnerable from pain. The idea that language offends is not new, of course. But the notion that because offensive speech can have a damaging impact on people it must be closely regulated signals an important departure from the past. This new view of speech is based on a radical redefinition of human subjectivity. It assumes that people lack the intellectual resources to deal with competing ideas. And a public that apparently lacks independence of thought or moral autonomy must be protected from making the wrong choices in the marketplace of ideas. At a time when ideas are seen as being potentially dangerous, their suppression can be represented as an act of public service.

The desire to protect individuals from painful words is underwritten by a powerful new cultural script. This means that, today, there is only a very feeble cultural affirmation for freedom of speech. Indeed, one often gets the impression that academics and public figures are more interested in criticising the ideal of free speech than they are in upholding it. Many thinkers seem unperturbed by the role of the state in policing speech. Thus the original impetus behind the demand for free speech - which was based on a fear of the power of the state to censor and persecute people for their beliefs and words - is dismissed as an historical footnote. Those who are concerned about state intervention into public debate are looked upon as having an old-fashioned and irrelevant obsession.

Perversely, some so-called progressive thinkers and activists go so far as to associate free speech with elite privilege. Freedom of speech is seen as something that protects the status of the powerful and negates the views or feelings of the oppressed and the vulnerable. This radical reinterpretation of the role of free speech is paralleled by a fundamental redefinition of what constitutes the problem: for today's critics of free speech, the locus of the problem is not the state but the domain of interpersonal relations. They focus their concern on individual forms of speech that wound those without power. This individualisation of the role of speech overlooks the institutional and cultural influences on public debate, as protecting the individual from psychological pain is seen as being logically prior to upholding the right to free speech. From this twisted worldview, state censorship actually has a positive role to play. Through enforcing laws that apparently protect people from hate and hurt, state censorship comes to be looked upon as championing the powerless.

Critics of the Oxford Union debate argue that the presence of racist speakers offends minority students and could lead to violence. However, history shows that certain ideas will always offend someone. There is no serious form of public speech that hurts absolutely no one. And as the American Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes remarked, `every idea is an incitement'. Those of us who believe in the formidable power of human intelligence need to remember these words, and dismiss the idea that free speech is not an absolute right as a very bad idea.


Another absurd piece of paranoia from the British Left

British Leftists hate America and Israel so much because America and Israel are both success-stories -- but the Left would look pathetic if they admitted that so they have to come out with some other cock-and-bull claim

Apartheid against Christians is practiced to various degrees -- sometimes to a severe degree -- by Arab states in the Middle East but the British Left says that it is Israel that is the apartheid state. America saved British independence twice in two world wars but the heading on the article below was "We fret over Europe, but the real threat to sovereignty has long been the US"

One knows something is important when the powers that be choose not to acknowledge it in public. Since 1945, Britain has been subject to at least three invasions. Two of these invasions have been massively discussed, and are widely viewed as having challenged and complicated understandings of what it means to be British. The empire came home, in that migrants from former overseas colonies settled here in large numbers, as they never had before the war; and Britain joined what is now the European Union, and became subject to interventions of different kinds emanating from Brussels.

The third post-1945 invasion was just as momentous, yet official and media silence about it is usually deafening. Since 1947, there have been US military bases in the UK: something that would have been unthinkable before 1939.

Schoolchildren in the United States are still taught that London's decision to keep 10,000 troops in the colonies after 1763 was one of the precipitants of the American revolution. Yet, according to the available statistics, over 10,500 US military personnel were stationed in the UK as late as 2005, a higher total than in any other European state, barring Germany and Italy, both defeated in the second world war. In all, well over 1.3 million US personnel have been stationed here since 1950, without - so far as I know - any consultation of the electorate.

It is not the exact number of these troops, however, but what they represent that is significant - namely London's postwar position of considerable clientage to Washington in terms of foreign policy and much else.

To refer to these subjects is to invite accusations of anti-Americanism. But I am not anti-American. I have worked in the US for 20 years. My point is not American power, but rather the double standard that characterises so much British political discourse. Sections of the media and members of both major parties have been all too eager to bang the autonomy drum when it comes to Europe. But there is a marked unwillingness to analyse the challenges to British independence from US influence; and those touching on the subject are swiftly denounced.

The usual rationalisation for this double standard is that the EU threatens Britain's internal way of life, while its relationship with the US does not. This is palpably absurd. Even leaving aside its military bases, America's influence on the domestic ordering of British life has been enormous, though sometimes unrecognised. The central place of deposit for Britain's historic archives at Kew, for instance, used to be called the Public Record Office, but is now re-named the National Archives. Why? Presumably because this is what the US styles its central place of archival deposit in Washington.

More here


Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.

American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.

For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For times when is playing up, there are mirrors of this site here and here.


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