Saturday, February 05, 2005

Sex Differences vs. Gender Bias

While I'm on the hunt for common ground, the recent controversy over Lawrence Summers' speech provides an ample target. I get the impression that once you clean the mud off the straw men, there's really not much substantive disagreement between the two sides. So let me outline a few propositions I think everyone should agree to:

  • Meaningful generalizations can be drawn comparing males and females (as groups, not individuals), and some of the group differences can be accounted for by biology. (In other words: some innate sex differences exist.)

  • It's possible that there may be such sex differences when it comes to cognitive abilities (such as math/spatial skills). Investigating this is an appropriate scientific pursuit. (From what I've heard, there is no innate difference in the mean scores of each group, but ability in males may have a greater variance.)

  • We should recognise that such generalisations have many individual exceptions. A positive finding in the above would in no way imply that all women are bad at math (or whatever). We're merely talking about statistical distributions here. (I'm afraid some leftists were actually saying stupid things like "well, Ms. X is a brilliant scientist so that proves them wrong!". Ugh.)

  • Accordingly, a positive finding of sex differences would in no way justify discrimination against individuals simply because of their sex. (Hint to loony left: we have nothing to fear from science.)

  • However, although innate sex difference might play some role in explaining gender disparities in academia, it is almost certainly a very minor and insignificant causal contributor.

  • In actual fact, significant and unjustified sex discrimination (possibly subconscious) is widespread in academia. [See, e.g., here.]

  • The above is a serious problem, and it would be wrong to obscure this by playing up insignificant causes of gender disparities (such as innate sex differences - though I don't see why that's any worse in principle than bringing up any other insignificant causal factor would be).

  • That covers the crucial points, I think. So what, exactly, is everyone disagreeing about?

    Update: See also the old discussion of women & philosophy at Sappho's Breathing.


    1. Indeed.
      But it does invite the thought experiment (which is almost certainly applicable in some regard).
      what if science proves that there is a certain advantage women or asian people lets say have over men/black people and it is only possible to tell it via gender/race (ie there is no good test). And furthrmore this difference will create a socioeconomic difference. Do we then permit discrimination or do we prevent discrimination on principle?
      You could even subsidize those that are disadvantaged.. 

      Posted by Geniusnz

    2. "You could even subsidize those that are disadvantaged..."

      We could actually argue the contrary: If males are innately more disposed to science, then why bother with women's education at all? It seems no weaker--and no stronger--than your argument, Genius.

      Vanishingly few characteristics, though, are tied to race. Besides skin color and a few surface morphological features, the genetics of humans within any one race is nearly as diverse as the genetics of humans across all races. Gender is a different matter, obviously, but race... Be very, very careful here... 

      Posted by Jason Kuznicki

    3. > If males are innately more disposed to science, then why bother with women's education at all?

      The opposite is probably true (ie women are beter) but we have two different objectives here

      1) Do we aim for "fairness' i.e. every person having equal opportunity given their starting situation.
      - This results in everyone having the same incentive to achieve.
      2) efficiency - where we choose to invest in those that will give the best return on investment - i.e. help the smart people - we then accept that there will be a massive income differential but we will also tend to have smarter people running our country and controlling our assets.

      there is no reason to think the two will match perfectly.

      Your argument about not educating women might be valid if we had a massive shortage of schools and we had to quickly eliminate 50% of the population from them. But in general it is unlikely a state would be justified under any logic to discriminate against one gender because they have a vast amount more information and power available to them - they can look at bursary scores for example to determine who should be allowed to study science at university. A little more bureaucracy can prevent a lot of social problems and inefficiency. An employer on the other hand who wishes to know which student to hire may not have much information available and might fall back on race gender religion etc in addition to other things. Thus permitting and not permitting discrimination is different from actively discriminating.

      > Vanishingly few characteristics, though, are tied to race.

      Race serves as an indicator in hundreds of things. For a rather simple one imagine you see a white person and a non white person - it is a good guess the white person is better at English than a "non white" person.
      An example of how that would work is this
      --- If I wanted to save time interviewing random people for the role of English teacher instead of interviewing 100 people of all races I could interview 50 white people and odds are the best person would be there.
      You cannot be sure - but then again you can't be sure you will hire the right person anyway no matter what system you use.

      Race is also a significant indicator in a number of other areas, for example socioeconomic status (something that might be hard to tell otherwise), life expectancy, IQ test scores, physical strength etc (it is irrelevant whether you think this is nature or nurture although I feel the complete denial of nature is probably more ideological than based in fact although nurture may well be the main effect). In fact the differences are quite considerable. the within group differences may exceed the between group differences but the problem here is that that is irrelevant to the fact that race may indeed be a useful piece of information when employing someone even though allowing this “rational choice” may have unpleasant social consequences.

      Science would come up with tons of racial differences if it was not taboo to do so. The fact that it is taboo is possibly a good thing. Since comparing races is dangerous not needed and a inaccurate way of doing it anyway ( if you are a scientist you can look at the genes themselves as opposed to just guessing by race). 

      Posted by Geniusnz

    4. Well Geniusnz, i think that differences in sexes are a large part physiological, as well as cultural, while differences in race are almost all culturally based. When you speak of things like socio-economics or english ability, you are not speaking of racial trends but of cultural... it just so happens race differences are seen with cultural differences. bone density, physical strength, indeed temporal lobe placement do vary, yet when we see hispanics or blacks making over 80% of the prison pop in the US, it is the cultural situation probably more than the racial features that are largely responsible. I won't discard the possibility that blacks for example are more prone to committing violence however, for the reason that their race, beginning in africa, has always been and indeed needed to be a more physically aggressive society in order to survive than has Europe in recent times. The struggle against nature, its beasts and other tribes means that a physical culture that has seen blacks build physically stronger than other races, has done so for a reason. it is logical to follow that some of this natural reasoning has entered the physical make-up of brain activity, or more likely at a hormonal/instinctual level. To accept our races' physical differences but ignore the possibility of any other differences based on political correctness is to conclude because of bias. 

      Posted by philo

    5. yes i generally agree - I also think culture tends to exagerate genetic biases when those people exist in communities. 

      Posted by geniusNZ


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