ScienceNews magazine has a review of the book “Inferior” titled How science has fed stereotypes about women. It makes some unscientific claims.
Author Angela Saini recalls a man cornering her after a signing for her book Geek Nation, on science in India. “Where are all the women scientists?” he asked, then answered his own question. “Women just aren’t as good at science as men are. They’ve been shown to be less intelligent.” Saini fought back with a few statistics on girls’ math abilities, but soon decided that nothing she could say would convince him. It’s a situation that may feel familiar to many women. “What I wish I had was a set of scientific arguments in my armory,” she writes.
There is some difference of opinion on whether men and women have, on average, the same intelligence. Some studies indicate that, on average, men may have a slight advantage. Others show that the averages are the same. What is fairly well agreed upon is that men have greater variance in intelligence, meaning there are more men who are highly intelligent as well as more men who are intellectually challenged. So while the man may be wrong in his claim that women are less intelligent and even if correct, the difference is not great, there are more men at the highest levels of intellect, the population which mathematicians and physicists are drawn from. This is not to say there are not great women in these fields; but, assuming equal interest and access to these disciplines, there will be more men than women.
In Inferior, Saini marshals plenty of facts and statistics contradicting sexist notions about women’s bodies and minds. She cites study after study showing little or no difference in male and female capabilities.
And yet the foundational study on the 14 year old boys and girls found similar results to the following study: A longitudinal study of sex differences in intelligence at ages 7, 11 and 16 years, according to which, at age 16, the mean IQ is 101.461 for boys with standard deviation of 15.235 and 99.681 for girls with standard deviation 14.085. Assuming the traits are normally distributed, one would expect nearly twice as many boys as girls with an IQ above 130. To be precise, approximately 3.05% of boys and approximately 1.57% of girls would have an IQ of 130 or higher in this model.
Only by understanding the cultural context of the men whose studies and ideas first pointed to gender imbalances can we see how deeply biases run, Saini argues.
How is scientific data influenced by cultural context? Forgive me if I’m skeptical that two academics from Great Britain are biasing their results to show higher variability of IQ among men, even if they are both men themselves.
Charles Darwin’s influential ideas reflected his times, for instance. In The Descent of Man, he wrote that “man has ultimately become superior to woman” via evolution. To a woman active in her local women’s movement, Darwin wrote, “there seems to me to be a great difficulty from the laws of inheritance … in [women] becoming the intellectual equals of man.”
And in Charles Darwin’s time, people believed in phrenology. How is a Victorian naturalist’s opinion relevant?
Saini does an excellent job of dissecting research on evolution, neuroscience and even the long-standing notion that women’s sexual behavior is driven by their interest in stable, monogamous relationships. By the end, it’s clear that science doesn’t divide men and women; we’ve done that to ourselves. And as scientists become more rigorous, we get closer to seeing ourselves as we really are.
Hopefully Saini is more careful than the author of this article. Ignoring human sexual dimorphism, which seems to be a more and more common failing, is not going to help us get closer to seeing ourselves as we really are.