Uncommon Sense

politics and society are, unfortunately, much the same thing

One study, two stories on gender gap

Let’s say there is a study about a hot social topic. And let’s say one analyst looks at the data to see what it shows and another analyst looks at the data to generate commentary on the social topic. These two analysts are not looking for the same things in the data; they both have an agenda. That in itself is not such a bad thing, but a socio-political narrative is in effect, causing one analysis to be emphasized and the other to be marginalized. Does this affect the social issue in question? Of course it does.

A study provoked by former Harvard President Lawrence Summers took another look at gender difference in academia, particularly math and science. The study was widely reported on, pertaining to only one finding: averages between male and female achievement were found to be more similar than in previous studies. That’s all fine and good. I don’t know of anyone who has a problem with that. The New York Times story on the study takes the same angle as the vast majority of other reports: it’s the predictable “look, there are no real differences between men and women” narrative. If you don’t trust the NYT you can find this same take on the study from just about anywhere else.

But the study also revealed a significant difference between the sexes. It’s not a difference that suggests superiority of one sex or the other. I mention this only because that’s the greatest point of contention on the matter, what makes it a hot social issue. Somehow we’ve been programmed to shut down our brains and believe if anyone suggests men and women are different they must automatically be saying women are inferior to men. That’s not what the data suggests and that’s not what I or anyone else I know of is suggesting when we mention the fact men and women are in fact quite different.

A Wall Street Journal article looked at the same study and found something significant that most other news outlets didn’t deem worthy of mentioning: there is greater variability among men. Greater variability, where men tend to reach a very high and a very low achievement percentile more so than women. A supporting document in the study describes it this way:

In our main article (1), we summarized the evidence for psychological gender similarities
– the pattern that males and females are quite similar on most psychological variables, including
mathematical and verbal abilities, which are highly relevant to science and mathematics
education and achievement. In that article, we showed how close the average scores for males
and females are on these measures. In explaining the underrepresentation of women at the
highest levels of mathematics and science achievement, however, some scientists focus not on
average scores in the general population, but instead on gender ratios in the upper tail of the
ability distribution. This approach shifts the argument from a discussion of average scores to a
discussion of variance.

The greater male variability hypothesis was originally proposed in the 1800s and
advocated by scientists such as Charles Darwin and Havelock Ellis, to explain why there was an
excess of men both in homes for the mentally deficient and among geniuses (2). In modern
statistical terms, the hypothesis is that, independent of mean-level differences, males have a
greater variance than females do on the intellectual trait of interest. Typically the statistic that is
computed is the variance ratio (VR), the ratio of the male variance to the female variance. Thus
values > 1.0 indicate greater male variability. Test norming data indicate a VR of 1.11 for the
Differential Aptitudes Test numerical ability subtest, 1.20 for the SAT-Math, and 1.02 for the
WAIS Arithmetic subtest (3). Others have found VR’s ranging between 1.05 and 1.25 for
mathematics tests administered to national samples of adolescents such as the NLSY and
NELS:88 (4) . Thus there is some evidence of slightly greater male variability in mathematics
performance. If true, greater male variability partially accounts for findings of an excess of
males at very high levels of mathematical performance (5).

Acknowledging a curious difference between men and women should not be so painful or socially abhorrent. The data available so far doesn’t explain why men have a greater variability, only that the variability is real. The supporting document tells us:

The greater male variability hypothesis, however, is a description of the data, not an
explanation. It simply describes the distribution of scores and says nothing about the source of
greater male variability and, in particular, whether it is due to biological or cultural forces or both.

The greater variability in male minds accounts for the greater numbers of high academic achievers as well as the fact that men populate a greater percentage of deficients or lowlifes – murders, rapists, and such. Using the data to make the case that men are mentally superior to women would be as absurd as using the data to make the case men are inferior. Both could be done, with a highly selective and intellectually dishonest look at the data. The study does not show men are either superior or inferior, they merely have this curious phenomenon of a greater variability.

But looking at the data from this perspective doesn’t support a social justice warrior’s need to fight injustice, so the vast majority of reporting focuses almost exclusively on the average, not the extremes. Focusing on the average may help promote a social cause and indeed a worthy one (it was at one time common place, and in some areas of the world still is, to treat women as inferior to men). Unfortunately, most news reports on this study seem to have adopted the common “this is all you need to know” attitude, meaning don’t think beyond the selective information we’ve offered and don’t ask inconvenient questions.

This is inherently an anti-intellectual attitude, one designed to make you avoid thinking for yourself. Disregarding the fact that there are statistical differences between men and women (such as the greater variability of men) does not help us understand what is actually happening in the human mind. Political correctness corrupts science when a social issue is at stake. Shouldn’t science be allowed to look into all possibilities and all avenues of inquiry? Looking only at the average is not enough to tell us what’s going on. Real science is not so limited.

bias, culture, diversity, political correctness, science, study

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Filed under: bias, culture, diversity, political correctness, science, study

One Response

  1. […] as is common knowledge, former Harvard president Lawrence Summers lost his job (as president of Harvard University) because of comments that, by many, were deemed sexist. Why the […]

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