Science, discussed.

Steven Pinker or according to him how evolutionary psychology “explains” the gender gap in science

Welcome to the third installment on the scientists portrayed in Declan Fahy’s book “The New Celebrity Scientists”. Click if you haven’t read the introduction, part 1 and part 2. This week is the turn of Steven Pinker. And so far this chapter once again presents us a scientist that is pretty controversial. While Stephen Hawking is seen as someone who has not contributed to science in a long time, and Richard Dawkins is caustic, Pinker presents itself as a scientist that never left the lab. He is an appointed professor at Harvard University and despite his media fame he continues to publish on academic journals. I was originally going to write about how the media loved his “rockstar look” and the stereotypical image of scientists. But doing further research on the topic I found something related to a topic very dear to me… His opinion on the gender gap in science careers

If we are to believe Declan Fahy’s premise Steven Pinker is an influential person. Whoever appears in this book is someone that represents science whether we like it or not. Outsiders can see this people’s opinions as the opinion of scientists, in general though that is not true. So you can see why it is problematic that someone with as much influence as him thinks the gender gap in science careers is due to innate characteristics. Though he has talked about this topic on several occasions I think the best example available is a debate between Elizabeth Spelke and Pinker after Harvard’s president said that women are outperformed in science because of biological factors.

I recommend anyone interested in the topic of underrepresentation of women in science to look at the video if you haven’t. It is pretty long but enlightening as to how the research we all have access to can be used differently while building an argument. Pinker acknowledges that social factors play a role in this issue but argued that because of biology women do not go into engineering and hard science fields.

Now this debate is 10 years old! So you might ask why I am talking about it and why this could be relevant for the conversation we are having ten years later about the absence of women in science? First of all I have written previously about how the gender gap in science careers has not moved a tiny bit in ten years. No matter how much we have talked about it, created programs, etc there has not been any change! And talking about this debate again is relevant because there is a lot of things we have learned i the last 10 years about what discourages girls from choosing science.

Now let’s get back to the debate. One of the first things Pinker says is the following:

There are obvious political colorings to it, and I want to begin with a confession of my own politics. I am a feminist. I believe that women have been oppressed, discriminated against, and harassed for thousands of years. I believe that the two waves of the feminist movement in the 20th century are among the proudest achievements of our species, and I am proud to have lived through one of them, including the effort to increase the representation of women in the sciences. – Steven Pinker

Now in that quote he proclaims himself as a feminist, however, he is omitting third wave feminism. An interesting omission isn’t it? Does this mean he supports the ideals of the firt two but not the third one? Arguably lots of people have problems with third wave feminism because it is often portrayed as a “men hating movement” and “angry feminists movement”. Now, this discussion is beyond the point of this blog but if you want to read more about it click here and here. Pinker continues to explain there are three positions one could take. One is to believe that men can do it and women don’t which he says is a stupid position. Other is to say the biological factors don’t play any role on this situation and the other, which he claims to take, is that there is a combination of biological and sociological factors. So far so good. Now before I go on let me say this. There are way too many factors that create the gender gap in science careers. A superficial dive into the literature is pretty daunting and you can find explanations for a lot of different reasons but usually is hard to piece them together. So basically if you expect Pinker, me or anybody to have an explanation that leads to an easy solution… well that is not going to happen anytime soon. The problem is complex and though I acknowledge that some biological factors may influence saying they are the strongest one is just wrong. Though hearing someone using evolutionary biology principles to explain gender gaps makes for a fun game of BINGO !

By Mark Frauenfelder

So let’s play! Are you ready? Pinker’s arguments are the following (paraphrasing them on the header but giving exact quotes afterward):

1. Men have more variability, therefore most geniuses are men

Also, we are talking about extremes of achievement. Most women are not qualified to be math professors at Harvard because most men aren’t qualified to be math professors at Harvard. These are extremes in the population. (…) For example, it’s obvious that distributions of height for men and women overlap: it’s not the case that all men are taller than all women. But while at five foot ten there are thirty men for every woman, at six feet there are two thousand men for every woman. Now, sex differences in cognition tend not to be so extreme, but the statistical phenomenon is the same (…) So even in cases where the mean for women and the mean for men are the same, the fact that men are more variable implies that the proportion of men would be higher at one tail, and also higher at the other. As it’s sometimes summarized: more prodigies, more idiots.

So a couple of things here… first his argument starts from variance in height to variance in intelligence… Also his distribution graphs were not labeled and didn’t have axis which bothered me. Ok there may be evidence for this… but look how for him the absence of women in the science fields is not because of discrimination but because of differences.

One thing wrong with this argument is that differences do not mean disadvantages. That argument can escalate pretty quickly to discriminate not only women but also other races. But also the whole notion that scientists come from the tail end  is just preposterous. Lots of kids, and not only girls but also boys don’t want to chose science because they perceive it as something unattainable. A similar notion to a quote of Dawkins, I showed on my last post.

I beg to differ, because though certainly there are geniuses in science, but, tenure-track positions are not filled by only geniuses. Smart hard-working people certainly but not all geniuses. Is his argument seriously that women are not in tenure-track positions because they are not 3 standard deviations away for the mean?

A paper by Rhea E. SteinpreisKatie A. Anders & Dawn Ritzke showed in 1999 that:

Both men and women were more likely to vote to hire a male job applicant than a female job applicant with an identical record. Similarly, both sexes reported that the male job applicant had done adequate teaching, research, and service experience compared to the female job applicant with an identical record. In contrast, when men and women examined the highly competitive curriculum vitae of the real-life scientist who had gotten early tenure, they were equally likely to tenure the male and female tenure candidates and there was no difference in their ratings of their teaching, research, and service. There was no significant main effect for the quality of the institution or professional rank on selectivity in hiring and tenuring decisions. The results of this study indicate a gender bias for both men and women in preference for male job applicants.

Also don’t forget about the language used on women’s letters of recommendation here and here.


2. Women care more about their families and men care more about status

To sum it up: men, on average, are more likely to chase status at the expense of their families; women give a more balanced weighting. Once again: Think statistics! The finding is not that women value family and don’t value status. It is not that men value status and don’t value family. Nor does the finding imply that every last woman has the asymmetry that women show on average or that every last man has the asymmetry that men show on average. But in large data sets, on average, an asymmetry what you find.

So it cannot be because there is not support for maternity leave, or because the tenure clock does not stop if you have a baby. Also tenure-track women tend to be single without children because having a baby can be a career killer. But of course, this is not important it is because statistics say that on AVERAGE we care more about our families and we don’t want to have fulfilling careers.


3. Women like people men like numbers.

Second, interest in people versus things and abstract rule systems. There is a staggering amount of data on this trait, because there is an entire field that studies people’s vocational interests. I bet most of the people in this room have taken a vocational interest test at some point in their lives. And this field has documented that there are consistent differences in the kinds of activities that appeal to men and women in their ideal jobs. I’ll just discuss one of them: the desire to work with people versus things. There is an enormous average difference between women and men in this dimension, about one standard deviation.

I have to counterarguments for this. The first one is, well a picture is worth more than a thousand words


The second one is why can’t we like princesses and pink stuff and baby dolls and numbers at the same time? There is an awesome post by Sara J Chipps about why it is wrong that we keep the same stereotypical image of what a scientist should look like and like.


4. Men take more risks

Third, risk. Men are by far the more reckless sex. In a large meta-analysis involving 150 studies and 100,000 participants, in 14 out of 16 categories of risk-taking, men were over-represented. The two sexes were equally represented in the other two categories, one of which was smoking, for obvious reasons. And two of the largest sex differences were in “intellectual risk taking” and “participation in a risky experiment.” We see this sex difference in everyday life, in particular, in the following category: the Darwin Awards, “commemorating those individuals who ensure the long-term survival of our species by removing themselves from the gene pool in a sublimely idiotic fashion.” Virtually all — perhaps all — of the winners are men.

Love how part of the argument is saying men take more risks and die and that is why women are underrepresented in science. Not words needed, also the fact that men take more risks is not necessarily because of nature, there are also studies that point out that women tend to take less risks because they have less self-efficacy that can be related to not feeling identified with the area to begin with. Also wouldn’t that make women also good scientists? You know like not dying in the lab and making sure the data is right before publishing instead of publishing results recklessly without double checking?


5. Men can rotate 3-D objects

Now, does this have any relevance to scientific achievement? We don’t know for sure, but there’s some reason to think that it does. In psychometric studies, three-dimensional spatial visualization is correlated with mathematical problem-solving. And mental manipulation of objects in three dimensions figures prominently in the memoirs and introspections of most creative physicists and chemists, including Faraday, Maxwell, Tesla, Kéekulé, and Lawrence, all of whom claim to have hit upon their discoveries by dynamic visual imagery and only later set them down in equations.

We don’t know if rotating things matter but here are some dudes that did it so it must be true. Though the examples he presented are real, CORRELATION is not CAUSATION, Pinker you should know better. Also, not all fields and not all areas within fields and not all research withing fields need rotating objects. Also, there is software that can help those “impaired” women by now.


6. Men, on average, are superior at mathematical reasoning. 

Fifth, mathematical reasoning. Girls and women get better school grades in mathematics and pretty much everything else these days. And women are better at mathematical calculation. But consistently, men score better on mathematical word problems and on tests of mathematical reasoning, at least statistically. Again, here is a meta analysis, with 254 data sets and 3 million subjects. It shows no significant difference in childhood; this is a difference that emerges around puberty, like many secondary sexual characteristics. But there are sizable differences in adolescence and adulthood, especially in high-end samples. Here is an example of the average SAT mathematical scores, showing a 40-point difference in favor of men that’s pretty much consistent from 1972 to 1997.

You know standardized testing is an awful way to test kids, and we complain a lot about how we are creating testers and not critical thinkers. There is a lot of evidence about how standardized tests are unfair to minorities and also scientists complain that that is no way to create good scientists. Except when you know it helps justify why women don’t study science careers.


I want to finish this post with two things. One is I have said before this problem is far too complex to just have biological reasons behind it. Also, the gender gap starts in middle-school and the reasons girls drop of science in middle-school are not the same as women in their 20’s vs tenure-track professors. There is a lot of research to be done. And just settling the problem as well its biological it’s just lazy science in my opinion.s

The other thing I want to say is that Declan Fahy does not even mention this debate in his book (correct me if I am wrong) and I feel is pretty big if a celebrity scientist thinks that women are not discriminated in science. Of course women and men have biological differences, but differences are not disadvantages period. I don’t think this blew under Fahy’s radar, but I do wonder what he left it out. It is arguably a topic that can take a chapter in itself so I wonder if it is going to be mentioned in the Susan Greenfield chapter.

Until the next installment of this series.

– P

Scientists portrayed in the book that dismiss philosophy:

Scientists Dismissing philosohpy Sexist attitude or comment Sexism does not exist in science
Stephen Hawking Yes
Richard Dawkins Yes Yes
Steven Pinker Yes
Susan Greenfield
Stephen Jay Gould
James Lovelock
Brian Greene
Neil Degrasse Tyson

One comment on “Steven Pinker or according to him how evolutionary psychology “explains” the gender gap in science

  1. Pingback: Beyond the Career Gap: The message the Tim Hunt saga is sending to girls | biomolbioandco

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