Sunday, August 31, 2008

Are Women Just Stupid?

A friend of mine posted the following on a policy blog, and as I was meeting his request for a response by email I realized I was basically just writing my next entry for my own blog. So why not just post it all here?

Monday, August 25, 2008

Men or Women: Who’s More Intelligent?

The other day, having my evening tea with friends in the university’s fast food restaurant, one of my well-read friends claimed women to be intellectually inferior to men. Though calling himself a feminist, he went on to assert that women were simply unable to create good literature or make some groundbreaking scientific or intellectual achievement. ‘Why’, said he, ‘are there so few women’s names on the historical records of human intellect? They were, in the 20th century, given complete freedom to pursue education and have other rights.’ I readily came to the defense of the opposite sex by mentioning names of great women writers and scientists, reminding him that a mere half-century of freedom (if really given) should be considered as a factor in contrast to thousands of years of slavery and confinement of women in all human societies.

However, my friend weaseled himself out of the discussion by claiming that the brain characteristics of men have evolved for more intelligent and creative thinking. After the session, I searched the internet and failed to find any study that would definitely prove my friend’s claims. However, I thought of this issue as interesting and important enough to be brought to contemporary writers/readers’ attention. I would love to get everyone’s opinion on it. Please send your brief opinion (up to 300 words) via e-mail (to me at on the question: Are Men more Intelligent than Women?
I’ll include the responses in our next issue of The Audience Review. Please include the following information with your opinion: Name, Age, Sex, Profession, Location (City and Country)
Looking forward,

At his request, here is my own reply:

Ernest, I pretty much agree with your assessment.

Science has proven there are differences in male and female cognition. See the September 1992 special issue of Scientific American, for example. And a lot has been done even since then, e.g. see Marianne Legato's 2005 book Why Men Remember and Women Never Forget, and the 2006 APA report Why Aren't More Women in Science?. But I'm pretty sure the studies show that overall intelligence averages the same. Even when races were compared (as argued in the infamous Bell Curve) an actual variance of no more than five points in IQ could honestly be maintained
(similarly for gender variances according to wikipedia), and though even that has been challenged, one should sooner note that the margin of error for IQ tests is actually greater than five points. For example, when my wife took a bunch of IQ tests she got a variety of scores ranging from 132 to 156, with most landing around 146. Any of those scores, BTW, is quite high. I myself took a smaller raft of IQ tests once upon a time and scored between 136 and 142, so unless I am stupid, women are not. But the point is, if a single test-taker can get a 132 one day and a 156 the next, obviously IQ tests are a very blurry instrument.

But even when broken down by areas of proficiency (e.g. men show greater spacial reasoning, women better verbal reasoning), gender-based differences only exist on an average. The situation is the same for strength: it is misleading to say "women are physically weaker than men," since although that is true on average, it is not an effective predictor of ability, since it is not the case that every man is stronger than every woman.
Although the strongest humans on earth will invariably be men, there are still many women who are extraordinarily strong. And almost any woman can become as strong as an average man with training, even if it's biochemically more difficult for some (e.g. I grow muscle without even trying, while Jen has to work at it). But there are plenty of women who can easily carry me out of a burning building, plus eighty pounds of gear besides (worldclass weightlifter Jill Remiticado, above, weighs only 120 Ibs. but easily lifts twice that). Thus, even when men exceed women at specific forms of cognition (and, BTW, vice versa), there are still plenty of women who do better than the average man, and plenty of men who do worse than the average woman. So you can't make blanket statements based on averages.

The analogy to strength works again to make this point: since female strength breaks down differently when measured anatomically. When at optimal fitness women tend to be stronger than men in their lower body and weaker than men in their upper body (and yet Jill can outlift me by far, so averages hardly matter). Women also on average have greater endurance than men but a lower pain threshold than men. But again, on average does not mean always. And so on. So there is no simple answer to whether men are stronger than women. So, too, for intelligence. But no matter what, just as any fit woman can kick the average man's ass (even Lucy Lawless,
famous ass-kicking actress and devoted mother, shown left, used to be an industrial gold miner), any smart girl can out think the average guy. And just as there are plenty of female weightlifters, there are plenty of female geniuses. In fact, I'm pretty sure differences in strength are actually greater by gender than differences in intelligence.

I suspect the reason the genius of women has not become as notable in the records of fame is in part as you say: it is only recently that equal opportunities became available to women. This is directly confirmable from studies of promotion and advancement in academic fields, where only now are prominent positions filling with women and yet are still not at parity (in some cases quite far from it), whereas in lower ranking positions (and in the production of Ph.D.'s) parity has almost been achieved (or even exceeded). Which suggests in a generation or two that parity will spill over into the upper echelons of academics, as this flood of graduates and career achievers becomes the new pool of candidates for elite grants and positions.

Motivation is also a factor, given different learning styles and cultural influences. For example, women do better at math (and get more excited about math) when it is taught differently. This was recently proved, I believe, in a study of teaching styles (if mathematical problems are associated with a story, for example). Likewise, women tend to drop out of career tracks more often than men, due to (among other things) the expectation that they should undertake most of the burden of child rearing (which may be physically unavoidable--paid maternity leave is of no use when that absentee time can only delay advancement and hinder one's ability to keep up with developments in the field). There could be other factors, though they would have to be tested. For example, I would suspect men are innately more likely to have poorer social skills than women, and when you lack social proficiency you will compensate with intellectual proficiency, thus men are disproportionately driven toward the latter, and the more so where compensating with a proficiency in violence and domination (another avenue available to socially inept men) is strongly discouraged or impeded. But again, all of this will have only a statistical effect, not an absolute one. Both men and women defy the averages all the time.

But in the end, I strongly suspect there is an element of self-fulfilling prophecy here as well: men like Ernest's "well-read friend" are essentially biasing their observations by choosing to praise or notice only men rather than women. In philosophy, if he hasn't heard of Patricia Churchland, Susan Haack, or Philippa Foot, he hasn't been paying attention. You can even be a renowned philosopher and look like a fashion model (Naomi Wolf, right). Likewise, as I've said on my blog before, in my experience the greatest authors of fiction of late are women, by a wide margin IMO. Donna Tartt's Secret History could well be one of the most brilliant literary achievements of the 20th century. Scarlett Thomas and Susanna Clarke also come to mind as authors of fiction the equal of any genius that ever wrote. But it's not like this is new. Emily and Charlotte Brontë, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen wrote books that have remained influential best sellers for over a hundred years now.

One could also build quite a list of great women scientists of our own generation, although I suspect that it isn't possible to be a famous scientist anymore, even for men, since the era of great landmark theory discovery is over. After all, who can name any man born after 1950 who is actually famous for discovering something? Nevertheless, if you actually try to sort the signal from the noise you'll see great discoveries being made all the time. I find Linda Buck's work on the olfactory system quite ground-breaking, Elizabeth Loftus on memory and cognition has been incredibly influential, Lene Vestergaard Hau has led the field on Bose-Einstein condensates, and Janet Conrad is one of the world's leading experts in particle physics (and so on: in physics alone there are many other top women scientists profiled at MSNBC, where one can also see that genius does not exist in inverse proportion to hotness: take a gander at leading theoretical physicist Marcela Carena, left; so let the stereotypes be dispelled; women are no different than men, and handsomeness has nothing to do with skill).

But sticking to what I know best, some of the greatest historians of our generation are women. Just in my own field (ancient science and technology) I myself aspire to be as superb a writer and historical analyst as Tracy Rihll, whose The Catapult: A History is without doubt the most decisive and influential work in the field ever written and will likely remain the lead text on the subject for centuries. Even apart from the subject field, but just as a writer and a historian, I challenge anyone to find any man who beats her work on any measure. Indeed, I would ask the same for Serafina Cuomo, whose work on ancient mathematics and technological culture is simply superb (for my review of the most recent books by Rihll and Cuomo see my blog From Catapults to Cosmology).

As I further noted on my blog about Books on Ancient Science, almost on par with them in ability and achievement are Marianne Stern (on ancient glassmaking), Karin Tybjerg (Roman mechanics and philosophy of technology), Sylvia Berryman (ancient physics and mechanics), Astrid Schürmann (Roman mechanics and engineering), Liba Taub (astronomy and meteorology), Tamsyn Barton (astrology and rhetoric), Georgia Irby-Massie (alchemy and natural history, shown at right), Adrienne Mayor (ancient geology and paleontology), and Joyce Reynolds and Mary Beagon (Roman natural history). And that's just in one tiny specialized field, and only because it's the one I know well. If there are that many brilliant female historians in that single field, surely there are as many in others as well. Even from my list, I must call attention to the fact that not only are these women excellent historians, but they are masters of science and mathematics and mechanics and technology as subjects of study, in defiance of all stereotypes. In many cases these women are the world's leading experts on their specific subjects of study, an honor once only occupied by men.

So there is no doubt women are producing products of genius matching those of men. So could it be that the problem isn't with them, but with crypto-sexists who fail to notice them or give them the praise they are due?


Pikemann Urge said...

You're totally spot-on. If one is well informed, one acknowledges that men and women think differently and have different strengths. That's why there are some fields where men will simply do better and some where women will.

I recall a magazine article about NASA's testing of female astronauts (in the '60s I think) and how they did better than the men. But politics got in the way, of course.

BTW, you wrote "and in the production of Ph.D.'s". That is the possessive form, not the plural! Tsk, tsk. If there's one problem that irritates me in public language, it's the incorrect use of the apostrophe.

If I see "DVD's" or "1980's" one more time... ;-)

Avedon said...

Whenever I hear this kind of question, I am forced to ask:

Who was the first scientist to win two Nobel prizes?

Eli Whitney patented the cotton gin, but who invented it?

Elias Howe patented the sewing machine, but who invented it?

Name the scientist who won the 1977 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discoving how to determine precise amounts of a hormone in the blood?

But of course, most people can't name all that many male geniuses, either.

Dana Fredsti said...

There's a reason you are one of our best friends... :-) And it's not just the red wine and religion bonds!

Richard rocks!

Richard Carrier said...

Pikemann Urge said... That's why there are some fields where men will simply do better and some where women will.

And yet still, of course, not always. Women may handle the rigors of space travel better on average, but not every women is better than every man even in that. One can say the same, conversely, about women in combat. Playing the averages, men make better soldiers, but plenty of men suck at it, and plenty of women are actually better at it than most men.

Random Passerby said...

My apologies. I shouldn't attempt to skim blogposts when severely sleep-deprived, then comment based on what I thought I read. Good post.

mv said...

Bio-psychological differences between men and women are responsible for much of the variability in what interests us. For instance, upon being tested in high school, I (a woman) scored above average in math (as did several of my female class mates), however, I have no interest in math. I admire those who do (I married a mathematician) but, personally, I'd rather hang myself than have a career involving math, and I'm betting, most women feel the same. Currently, I'm knee deep in bio-chemistry courses and I like this field much better.

Our interests, and the genes which guide them, will usually trump our abilities when it comes to making life and career choices because many of them have had evolutionary value at some point along our journey to present time. It's not that most of us "can't" handle one field or another, it's just that most of us are not interested, thanks, in no small part, to our genetic heritage. Lack of interest results in lack of drive, which, coupled with social pressures, results in fewer women making career choices involving physics or math.

Similarly, just because a person can outrun everybody doesn't mean s/he is interested in being an Olympics athlete.

Richard Carrier said...

Vegatee: Good point. What you mention adds to the examples of what I meant by "motivation is a factor." But one shouldn't over-generalize.

It is probably be the case that genetic variances in motivation steer people into different life paths. I would suspect this explains the prevalence of women in careers where empathy is an active asset, and the prevalence of men in careers where empathy is a potential disadvantage. I also suspect there is a gender variance in the enjoyment of combat (both physical and verbal) which may affect rates of participation in fields like philosophy. But obviously, even if such variances exist, they only exist on average, and thus don't define all members of either gender. Hence plenty of women like to fight (even if only playfully), and plenty of men don't.

But I'm not entirely sure there are measurable biological gender differences in every case, such as motivation to mathematics. I've yet to see any data that way, and it seems prima facie doubtful. There are cultural differences (when women are taught math differently, they enjoy it more), but biologically I'm not sure it's true that women are in any way predisposed to dislike math more than men.

I would wonder how such a disparity could ever have evolved, since we invented what we mean by math long after human sex genes were practically fixed. One must ask what it is that men enjoy about math, when in fact they do, since it can't be math itself (which didn't exist when all our relevant genes evolved), and then see whether women enjoy the same things (but are culturally encouraged to find other avenues to satisfy this interest), or whether they are truly different (though again, of course, this would still only be on average).

Take myself, for example. I, too, would abhor taking any career involving math, and specifically gave up a promising career in electronics engineering for that very reason. But I still find enjoyment in working equations and theory, when it's on my own time and I'm exploring the philosophical underpinnings of mathematical facts or "solving puzzles" that I'm highly motivated to solve (rather than doing math I have to just to get paid, or doing math all the time).

I also like math much more now than I used to, largely because I changed the way I learn and use it. I hated Calculus when I took it in high school (and this drove me away from becoming a nuclear engineer for the Navy, something I almost did), but after a hiatus of a few years I found I loved sonar and the simpler mathematics underlying electronics and sound (when I served in the Coast Guard).

And now the principles of Calculus fascinate me, although I still hate the tedious labor of working and solving equations, and prefer the philosophy of it instead.

So where do I fit? And how many are like me, in either gender? Or could be if they had similar environmental influences? Indeed, how many men in math-intensive jobs really don't like it all that much and just do it for money?

The data show more and more women entering math-intensive careers, which means arguments like "I'm betting most women feel the same" don't likely reflect any genetic factors, but more likely cultural ones. Wait and see how "most women" feel in fifty years. Though remember "most men" hate math, too--so you have to be talking about relative numbers, but do we really have such data, and if we did, why should we believe any disparity in it is genetic in origin?

In any case, we shouldn't draw hasty conclusions from vague information.

RantingAndRavingAngryPharmacist said...

I'm late commenting on this, but was surprised that nobody mentioned the most obvious reason for the lack of women in hard scientists. Women are much better at multi-tasking and men are better at single-focused work (of course, I'm speaking in generalities, there are always exceptions.) One might explain this difference in evolutionary terms due to the fact that women were often keeping one eye to keep the toddlers out of harm, at the same time they were cooking supper, at the same time they were doing a myriad of other things. Women do excellent at applied sciences such as medicine and pharmacy--indeed they excel at fast-paced, flustering environments. Men do better at single-focus research. I think either gender can learn to perform reasonable well--women can do single-focus tasks when its required, just as men can multi-task when its required. But along the lines of what Vegetee wrote, people are attracted to the field that they enjoy at and can excell at with a moderate amount of work. Most people avoid going into jobs which have a bigger learning curve (for them individually) then a job which is "easier" for them to catch on to. I don't think this is a bad thing--the world needs multi-taskers AND single-focused workers. Ideally both types would be appreciated for their important contributions. Society goes wrong when it elevates one type as superior over the other.

Richard Carrier said...

RantingAndRavingAngryPharmacist said... Women are much better at multi-tasking and men are better at single-focused work.

Actually, scientists just recently proved that multi-tasking doesn't exist. It's a fiction. Our brains can't do multiple things at once. We only trick ourselves into thinking they can by rapid switching, which results in massive declines in ability, regardless of gender. That's why there are now laws increasingly adopted that outlaw driving while handling a cellphone. Even conversing with a passenger reduces driving skill and response time. Gender has not proven to benefit anyone here. We all suffer, pretty much equally.

One might explain this difference in evolutionary terms due to the fact that women were often keeping one eye to keep the toddlers out of harm, at the same time they were cooking supper, at the same time they were doing a myriad of other things.

That sounds like folk psychology to me.

Women do excellent at applied sciences such as medicine and pharmacy--indeed they excel at fast-paced, flustering environments. Men do better at single-focus research.

Have you actually read studies on this? Or is this just an impression you have? For my part, I haven't seen any such distinction, and I've worked in a lot of different environments with a lot of different people of both genders.

Most people avoid going into jobs which have a bigger learning curve (for them individually) then a job which is "easier" for them to catch on to.

Actually, the selection process is the other way around. Employers avoid hiring people who face a bigger learning curve. If they didn't, believe me, learning curves would not affect anyone's decision where to work. Everyone I've ever known looking for a job is eager to undertake any training the company will give them to get them up to speed. That's why college and trade schools like ITT are so widely attended--people aren't afraid of a long learning curve to get employment. They just can't get on that curve if they can't afford it or no one let's them in. So I don't think the evidence backs you here. If anything, it contradicts you, quite resoundingly.