Oh, those downtrodden conservatives

Apparently conservatives are in the minority in psychology. The explanation must be discrimination! It couldn’t possibly be that people with PhDs are a bit put off by the current state of conservative politics in the US, could it?

Oh, and, in case you didn’t get the memo: it’s now totally unacceptable to offer biological explanations for gender differences. And apparently it has been for some time. (I guess someone forgot to tell Steve Pinker, Simon Baron-Cohen, David Buss, and the rest of them. And the people throwing grant money at them. And writing the endless news reports.)

Thanks, M!

13 thoughts on “Oh, those downtrodden conservatives

  1. I can’t access the NYT paper, but i did go to a talk by Baron-Cohen the other day. He was
    1) extremely careful in his wording: he kept talking about ‘sex differences’, not gender differences; he kept emphasising these were averages only, and emphasised that they were deliberately measured in newborns because later differences were or could be due to socialisation; and (int his talk) he was only interested in foetal testosteron, not actually in sex!
    2) he was extremely worried about the larger impact his research can have once it is ‘out of his hands’ (i.e. in the media/in the hands of unscrupulous doctors, etc) and showed awareness of how media might increase pressure on pregnant women.

    So, there are many things I don’t like about his research (the rough characterisation of the ‘female to male’ spectrum for example). But this: “it’s now totally unacceptable to offer biological explanations for gender differences” also strikes me as slightly too harsh! My take is that there probably is SOME biology going on, but we so vastly overestimate its role that it is just completely unhelpful to focus on that; everyone’s focus and first explanation should be socialisation.

    But for the research B-C does, there is a reason to think about biology. And so there is a question here, and it is a difficult one (for any science): should we not research certain things because we know that they might be interpreted in particular (wrong/harmful) ways by people society? And if we decide we should conduct research anyway, what burden does that place on us to mitigate it’s effects?
    There is also a question about explanation; some of B-C’s research show that male and female newborns demonstrate differences on average on certain performance measures. It is already a leap from there (both statistically and conceptually) to state that biology explains average differences (and by how much), and to say that it explains any individual difference is a leap to far. In the talk I went to B-C did not, by any means, go to far.

    But that was just a snapshot impression – again I could not access NYT!

  2. “it’s now totally unacceptable to offer biological explanations for gender differences” was my summary of what the NYT article claimed. The actual phrase used was “taboo against discussing sex differences”. It still seems very clear to me that there is no such taboo.

  3. Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender has a thorough critique of Simon Baron Cohen’s claims about male and female minds including the experiments on infants. I think its great that SBC worries about how his research is used, but, as the quote below indicates, he clearly does not refrain from making sweeping generalizations based on it:
    “People with the female brain make the most wonderful counsellors, primary school teachers, nurses, carers, therapists, social workers, mediators, group facilitators or personnel staff … People with the male brain make the most wonderful scientists, engineers, mechanics, technicians, musicians, architects, electricians, plumbers, taxonomists, catalogists, bankers, toolmakers, programmers or even lawyers.”

  4. John Tierney proving himself to be an atrocious blockhead yet again. My favourite bit is that his report on the Ceci and Williams PNAS paper on the under-representation of women in science (which asserts, among other things, that there is no evidence of gender-based discrimination in publication) managed to omit the name of the female co-author, Wendy Williams, “because of an editing error.”

  5. Wahine1:

    Connellan and Baron-Cohen’s study of newborns, which B-C and others cite again and again, appears to be seriously flawed. To summarize, the study has not been repeated, the researcher was aware of the infants’ sexes, and the objects (face and mobile) were presented to infants in succession rather than simultaneously. There are other problems as well; I believe the major paper to address the flaws is Nash & Grossi, “Picking Barbie’s brain: Inherent sex differences in scientific ability?” (2007). Cordelia Fine examines the study in her book “Delusions of Gender,” as well as the fetal testosterone claims, which she argues are unsupported by the evidence.

    B-C may believe he is being cautious, but I find it difficult to take him seriously when he continues to draw very bold conclusions using problematic methods like reports of mothers about their children and self-assessment tests. I don’t think very many people are arguing there are no biological differences, but what that means is still up in the air.

  6. Did anyone else think this quote from an anonymous non-liberal student in the NYT was odd: “Given what I’ve read of the literature, I am certain any research I conducted in political psychology would provide contrary findings and, therefore, go unpublished. Although I think I could make a substantial contribution to the knowledge base, and would be excited to do so, I will not.” ?

    It doesn’t seem like quoting someone who is certain of what their research *would* find is a good way to make your case in this instance…

  7. There are a number of problems with this, with the most serious one probably being the simplistic placing of people onto a liberal-conservative spectrum that doesn’t even really approach an adequate mapping of the range of political views that might be on the table. There’s also the fact that all the examples of the alleged bias involve people who were speaking glibly outside their areas of knowledge (Moynihan and Summers).

  8. I’ve read the transcript for Haidt’s talk, and it seems reasonable enough to me. He has more evidence that there is a dearth of conservatives than that there is an anti-conservative bias in psychology, but given that he identifies in the talk as a liberal perhaps we should take his bias hypothesis somewhat seriously. I’ve written up a summary of the talk, and my reaction to it here: http://theconsternationofphilosophy.blogspot.com/2011/02/haidt-on-bias-in-academy.html

  9. Bah, Haidt lost me when he said the results of his audience poll were “statistically impossible.” I can only conclude that he does not know what those two words mean.

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