Combating stereotypes: A Quinean moment

Though the following is an anecdote, it is analyzed more seriously in a professional science-education journal.  It illustrates the Quinean point that there is more than one way to adjust one’s beliefs in light of a recalcitrant experience:

In many ways, it was typical of the kinds of things that NSF-funded researchers do to fulfil [sic] their broader-impacts requirement. [Diandra Leslie-Pelecky] took three female graduate students on weekly visits to local classrooms, where they spent 45-minutes leading nine- and ten-year-old children in practical activities designed to teach them about electricity and circuits. The visitors also talked about their lab work and careers. In addition, Leslie-Pelecky did something less typical of broader-impacts efforts: she brought along education researchers to study the effect of this interaction on the children’s perception of scientists.

Those assessments were startling, she says. After three months, most of the students said that they still weren’t sure who these young ‘teachers’ were – except that they couldn’t possibly be scientists. In their minds, scientists were unfriendly, grey-haired old men in white lab coats.

In addition to the Quinean moment, we can see that cultural stereotypes can trump personal experience.  This may be part of what is behind student incivility toward women profs.

the anecdote appears in a fuller discussion of NSF funding requirements in NatureNews.

h/t to female science professor.

4 thoughts on “Combating stereotypes: A Quinean moment

  1. They could just be Bayesians.

    Prior probability of female scientists: 0%
    Prior probability of crazy people claiming to be female scientists: 0.000000000001%
    Evidence: people claim to be female scientists.

    Result: 100% probability that the people are crazy.

    Moral of the story? Never set your prior probability to zero.

  2. Interesting, Carl. Could their being bayesians be explanations of the phenomena as I described them, rather than alternatives? E.g., conventional stereotypes tend to trump because we are bayesians who assign… ?

  3. It’s interesting, but I don’t know if I’d infer anything about gender stereotypes specifically from their findings. After all, it’s not as if they compared the experiences of these young women with comparably aged and dressed young men doing the same thing, and found that the latter did get acceptance as scientists. Or for that matter, how about old white guys? I suppose that’s more likely, but in general, people who show up in your classroom and teach you things are “teachers.” Can teachers also be scientists? What would a fourth-grader think?

  4. Having had elementary school teachers (including those who taught science), I can state with some confidence that the sets of (elementary school) teachers and scientists are disjoint. If children (who may be less tolerant of the idea of exceptions to the rule) have the same expectation, that’s not a huge surprise.

    Yes, I am sure that there are Ph.D.s who now teach in elementary schools, and that there are elementary school teachers who perform scientific research. Their students are very lucky, but that’s not really my point. Many (most?) students are likely to have had an experience more like mine, with a fifth grade teacher who informed the class that the Earth was 6,000 miles around, and dismissed my attempts to correct him.

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