Toxic article in the NY Times?

Here we go again.  At least this time is isn’t about Hillary Clinton.  Instead, “Teaching Boys and Girls Separately” focuses on the work of Leonard Sax, a family physician who is not trained in education or neuroscience.  But, the NY Times tells us, Sax claims that boys and girls are neurologically very different, so different in fact that they should be educated very differently.  “Sax’s book and lectures also include neurological diagrams and scores of citations of obscure scientific studies…”

After nearly four pages of anecdotes that support Sax’s view  and lots of statements about the vast amount of research being done on the differences between boys’ and girls’ brains, the article brings in Jay Giedd, chief of brain imaging at the Child Psychiatry Branch at N.I.M.H.  Since he, and the other genuine experts cited are quite likely to be right about what the science shows, Sax’s views should be rejected:

Giedd says, is that when it comes to education, gender is a pretty crude tool for sorting minds. Giedd puts the research on brain differences in perspective by using the analogy of height. “On both the brain imaging and the psychological testing, the biggest differences we see between boys and girls are about one standard deviation. Height differences between boys and girls are two standard deviations.” Giedd suggests a thought experiment: Imagine trying to assign a population of students to the boys’ and girls’ locker rooms based solely on height. As boys tend to be taller than girls, one would assign the tallest 50 percent of the students to the boys’ locker room and the shortest 50 percent of the students to the girls’ locker room. What would happen? While you’d end up with a better-than-random sort, the results would be abysmal, with unacceptably large percentages of students in the wrong place. Giedd suggests the same is true when educators use gender alone to assign educational experiences for kids. Yes, you’ll get more students who favor cooperative learning in the girls’ room, and more students who enjoy competitive learning in the boys’, but you won’t do very well. Says Giedd, “There are just too many exceptions to the rule.”

Would we see an article on an advocate of child beating that waits until page 4 to tell us that the experts say it would yield unacceptable results? One might think that there’s a difference here, that single-sex schools are not harmful. But the question we are focusing on is not about the practice; it is about the rationale. And that can be harmful:

In two studies, using both correlational and experimental designs, we found as predicted that the biological gender theory was linked to stronger gender self-stereotyping tendency (as reflected by greater endorsements of negative feminine traits and slower reaction time in denying stereotypic feminine traits).

“Beyond nature and nurture: The influence of lay gender theories on self-stereotyping.”
Coleman, Jill M.
Hong, Ying-Yi
Self & Identity; Jan2008, Vol. 7 Issue 1, p34-53.

Since I haven’t read Sax’s work, I cannot present my own analysis. However, the following review from might serve as a warning for those of us who – as I have – encounter references to Sax in professional conversations.   It looks like we’ve got Baumeister all over again:

I could not believe the consistent slant of sexism in this book. Let’s start with Sax’s statement that women would receive pay equal to men, if they only had the guts to ask for it, like men do. He sights a study about how often recent males grads ask for raises as opposed to female grads who don’t usually ask. What he never even considers is the response of the employer. Do women who ask for raises get them as often as men? Are men who ask viewed as “ballsy” by their employers while women are viewed as “needy and grasping”?

Sax concludes that women are biologically designed to take fewer risks than men and we need to be trained in “dare taking” as young girls, because being too cautious can be detrimental to our success in the business world. Women should be trained against our nature, so it will go better for us. Oddly enough, when later he makes a case that most “normal” men are biologically designed to associate aggression, violence and rape with arousal and sex there is no suggestion that perhaps men should be trained against this nature. Girls should be trained at an early age to jump off chairs onto mattresses but boys don’t need to be taught that violence against women is not acceptable sex practice. That is the way men are made. Girls should be taught how to say “no” more firmly.

Any respect I had for Sax at the beginning of this book was lost by his lack of insight into his own gender bias. He repeatedly looks at research and studies at a surface level that serves his own agenda, never asking the deeper questions of a thinking man (OR woman). If this book and Sax represents the frontline in the emerging science of sex differences, we’re in big trouble people.

No, it is not the frontline in any emerging science of sex differences.  The Times article would have been better as one about the misuse of science in developing educational practices.

Feminist theory and empirical predictions

Interesting case, if alarming linkage, which is indicated by the stress:

Body dissatisfaction and disordered eating were compared across groups of college women from China ( n= 109), South Korea ( n= 137), and the United States ( n= 102). Based on cultural differences in the amount of exposure to Western appearance standards, particularly the thin-body ideal, sociocultural theory ( Thompson, Heinberg, Altabe, & Tantleff-Dunn, 1999 ) would predict that body dissatisfaction and disordered eating would be highest in the U.S. sample and lowest in the Chinese sample. In contrast, based on the speed and pervasiveness of changes in women’s roles, feminist theory ( Bordo, 1993 ; Jeffreys, 2005 ) would predict that body dissatisfaction and disordered eating would be highest in the Korean sample and lowest in the U.S. sample. Multidimensional measures indicated the highest levels of body dissatisfaction and disordered eating in the Korean sample and the lowest levels in the U.S. sample, indicating that predictions derived from feminist theory were a better fit to the data than predictions derived from sociocultural theory. Results indicated that theoretical understandings of body dissatisfaction must recognize not only differences between Western and non-Western cultures, but also differences among non-Western cultures.

Abstract from:

Jaehee Jung
Forbes, Gordon B.
Psychology of Women Quarterly; Dec2007, Vol. 31 Issue 4, p381-393, 13p

More on the ethics and epistemology of implicit bias

Via the excellent SGRP blog, I’ve just learned of a really interesting article on implicit bias, by Erica Roedder and Dan Kelly. It deals with lots of the issues that have come up in our discussions here (most recently here), but does so in a much more systematic way. Among other things, they consider the idea that we should, when marking students, increase the marks of those we are likely to be biased against. And that we should do this simply on the basis of the probability of such a bias, since we cannot expect to have introspective knowledge of it. Moreover, they consider the idea that we should do this *even if* there are no studies examining the role of implicit biases in marking (because perhaps we have enough knowledge about such biases in other areas to predict a marking bias). Of course, another option is to do what is increasingly standard in the UK, and mark all work anonymously. (When this came in, it reportedly led to a huge increase in Firsts for women. I haven’t got a good reference for this, but would love to get one!) Anyway, go read the paper– really interesting and important stuff.