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Women and Math – Part 1

by T.J. Nelson


On the Internet, no one can tell whether you're a dolphin or a porpoise
by T.J. Nelson

Women and Math, Part 1

Scientific evidence long ago disproved the myth that the brains of men and women are the same.

Part 1 of this article gives an overview and personal observations. Part 2 is a brief review of the scientific literature on the subject (with no math, I promise).

A merican women are in denial.

Even today, in our supposedly more enlightened and rational era, we can still find articles like this one claiming that t-shirts bearing slogans like “born to wear diamonds” or “allergic to algebra” are “sexist.” “I was never told explicitly that girls could not excel in these subjects,” says the author, referring to her school days. “But there is a subtle message, nonetheless.”

On the face of it, the above article seems fairly harmless. But it makes use of some underlying assumptions that need to be questioned. The unspoken idea is that we are all basically identical—clones, if you will, and therefore the only reason there are so few female mathematicians and physicists must be that someone is holding them back. Supposedly there is some subtle, unspoken message being fed to them that prevents them from excelling in math. The underlying assumption is that female brains are identical to male brains.

It is not true. There's no longer any question that male and female brains are different. The differences are not subtle: both structural and functional differences are easily measured. These differences account for most, if not all, of the differences in cognitive ability, and many of the differences in outlook, between men and women.

That's not to say one group is smarter than the other, or that either group should be discouraged from a math career. There are lots of women who are great at math, and lots of men who aren't. But equality should not be based on a lie. The fact is that the highest achievers in math are almost exclusively male, while occupations that require high levels of language skill, such as the simultaneous translators at the U.N., are almost exclusively female. Science has shown that brain differences can account for these disparities. The reason for the discrepancy is not cultural, but biological.

Miley Cyrus
Math and spatial visualization are not just for academics. Here Miley Cyrus contemplates three-dimensional topology at the 2013 VMA awards

If we base our policies on false assumptions, such as that men and women are identical, we will end up doing things that put both genders at a disadvantage. We will be doing social engineering: tinkering with the process and adding rules until we get the desired end result. It's a way of trying to squeeze the world into your false view of reality. But if it's ignored, reality will always find a way to bite back.

What harm, you might ask, would it do to force math departments to graduate equal numbers of men and women, and to force employers to hire equal numbers of men and women in science and math positions, regardless of their skill or ability? Plenty. It would undermine our meritocracy and replace it with a system in which success and failure are dictated by politics.

The difference in ability first becomes apparent in childhood, when children are in school. So how do the schools respond? Do they discriminate? My experience conflicts with that of the author of that article. Based on my experience, schools do discriminate, but not against girls. They discriminate against boys.

Now, in all fairness I must admit I may be biased against school. I spent much of my time in the Principal's office, mainly for playing chess in class. Apparently, teachers dislike it when their students shout out “Check!” at random times during class. Who knew?

I remember quite clearly the fear that I and the other boys had back in junior high school. Even then, the school hierarchy was almost completely dominated by females. They had assigned themselves the task of nurturing the girls and defining which boys to “weed out” first. The war of the sexes was fought on the battlegrounds of our schools, and it was a battle of attrition. We lost some of our best troops as juvenile delinquents. Some were misclassified as “autistic” or “disturbed,” and many others were sent to a place called Special Education, an intellectual dungeon from which no one ever returned. So the girls surged ahead. Nowadays, the schools have a new weapon: ritalin and its successors, Adderall (a mixture of D- and L-amphetamines), and several other drugs. If you aren't quiet and attentive enough in class, you run the risk of being drugged to make you be quiet. I'm glad I got out of there before the chemical warfare started.

To some people, that assessment may seem harsh. But we need to carefully consider as a society the risks of redefining as a disorder a behavior pattern that was once considered normal, particularly in a captive population, when there are no objective criteria supporting its existence as a bona fide medical condition. Giving children drugs for a condition whose existence is on shaky medical ground, not to cure them, but for the sole purpose of controlling their behavior, is a very serious matter.

According to DSM-IV criteria, 11.7% of children have ADHD. Given that males are diagnosed with ADHD four times as often as females, this means that 18.72% of the boys, or one in every 5.5, are candidates for being coerced or pressured into taking drugs that affect their brains. Is this really where we want to go as a society?

There's no doubt that ritalin helps some kids calm down in class. But why do they need to be calmed down? Just saying it's because of ADHD is a circular argument. If male and female brains are the same, the fact that mainly boys are being drugged is proof that schools are discriminating against boys.

What we're being told is not only false, but contradictory. Men and women's brains are the same when it benefits women, but different when it can be used against men.

The result of this lying was to put society well on the way toward defining maleness as a disease. Luckily, we've pulled back a little from that. But even today, we still have people ranting about how all the world's problems were caused by men and babbling about something called the “partriarchy.” It is fair to ask how much this anti-male attitude has infected our schools, and what effect it has on the preponderance of ADHD diagnoses in male children.

After leaving junior high, the boys entered high school. In America, high school means football. American football, for the benefit of readers in Europe, is a sport where two groups of guys line up on a field and bash into each other, as they try to prevent each other from moving a leather-covered ball in opposite directions. Football practice, at least in those days, consisted in part of ramming your head and shoulders into a padded sled. It couldn't have been more efficient if it had been designed to injure your brain.

After only a few months of this, the girls in math class shot ahead, relatively speaking. Within a year, those boys, once my intellectual equals (well, almost), all started acting stupid. Eventually, instead of mathematicians and scientists, they became lawyers and insurance salesmen. Maybe not the dregs of society, but less than what they could have become.

The girls didn't do much better. Up until puberty, boys and girls seemed equal. But when they hit puberty, that changed. I remember thinking as a kid that estrogen must radically rewire the brain. The girls became geniuses at determining the number of dollars in the guy's wallet. But in abstract math and three-dimensional processing, which require symbolic manipulation and spatial visualization, the girls suddenly lost interest.

Did that happen because of social conditioning, or because people always lose interest in things they're not good at? I will take up that question in Part 2. But my experience challenges the myth of the math genius girl that we always see on TV these days, and comes closer to validating the stereotype of the chick who can't understand engineering diagrams, and not only can't rotate 3D objects in her head, but can't imagine that such a thing is possible for anyone. And forget about parallel parking (admittedly, a difficult 3D motor task that many people have trouble with).

Of course, there are lots of exceptions. We live on a bell curve. But as one really smart lady named Ayn Rand famously said, you can ignore reality, but you can't ignore the consequences of ignoring reality. If the stereotype is false, the sooner we eliminate it, the better. But if it's really true, we need to be honest enough to admit it, and implement more appropriately tailored programs to address these real differences. Otherwise, we could end up with bridges that collapse, cars that mysteriously explode, and computer programs and operating systems that crash.

So it would be a totally different world ... at least in some respects ... and definitely a more dangerous and less prosperous one.

Now, many guys would argue that the function of women is to make the world more dangerous and less prosperous. But if the truth will make you free, it follows that ignoring the truth could put us all in chains. So what is the truth? We need to know. And if someone calls us “sexist” for challenging the common wisdom, so be it.

It might make some people happier to live in their fantasy world where everyone accepts their cherished P.C. myths. The P.C.ers claim to value diversity, but in practice they want to make everyone the same. I may be burned at the stake for writing this article. But if I can convince even one child to face the reality that they are not a clone, and should resist being turned into one with every fiber of their being, my sacrifice will not be in vain.

Click here to go to Part 2

See also:

Science Commen­tary

Women and Math — Part 2

The idiocy of audacity

Book Reviews

P.C., M. D by Sally Satel

Experiments Against Reality by Roger Kimball

Science Left Behind: Feel-Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti-Scientific Left by Alex Berezow and Hank Campbell

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aug 18, 2013; updated sep 05, 2013