Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Nature vs. not sure

The perennial nature-vs-nurture debate just won't go away. This is particularly true with regards to gender differences, a subject of broad interest.

I'll acknowledge my biases up front. I have long been skeptical about biological determinism. This is partly because of its historical association with racism, sexism, classism, and the eugenics movement. But it's also because, particularly in recent years, there has been a tendency to overstate the importance of genetics in explaining human behaviour. Part of the explanation for this "genohype" may be the dramatic achievements of the Human Genome Project together with the rise of the biotechnology sector. Just as the success of Darwin's theory of natural selection led to Social Darwinism, today's molecular genetics revolution has put a new wind in the sails of biological determinism.

In the scientific world, the nature-vs-nurture debate is generally accepted to be an ill-posed problem. Because the environment affects the expression of genes, it is not a question of nature versus nurture, but of nature vis-à-vis nurture. Nevertheless, the ways in which and the extent to which nature and nurture influence human behaviour remain controversial. And beliefs about this can have profound consequences.

But one thing's for certain, and that's uncertainty. Despite the way results from studies of gender differences are often portrayed, we're usually left with more questions than answers. Here I want to comment briefly on two considerations that should be borne in mind.

Does the difference matter?

It's common to read reports stating that, for example, "women perform task X better than men". What this really means is "on average women perform task X better than men, and this effect was found to be statistically significant". The magnitude of the effect may be small or large. The degree of overlap between women and men may be small or large. (And of course the study may be flawed.)

To what can the difference be attributed?

Assuming the difference is real and meaningful, we're still left with the question of whether it represents an innate biological difference or an environmental (cultural) difference. For some reason it seems that people quickly jump to the conclusion that gender differences are innate. But in most cases it is extremely difficult to sort this out. Cultural effects can be extremely subtle. As has been pointed out (by ?), the concept of "wet" wouldn't mean much to a fish.

Grist for the mill

Here are three interesting articles that touch on some of these issues. First, a review by Viv Groskop of "The Sexual Paradox: Troubled Boys, Gifted Girls and the Real Difference Between the Sexes" by Susan Pinker. Next, an interview with professor of language and communication Deborah Cameron about her book "The Myth Of Mars And Venus". Finally, a New York Times article by Elizabeth Weil about the movement for single-sex public education based on gender differences.

I've really only scratched the surface of this issue (not to mention related ones), and there's lots of stuff out there (a Google search of "gender differences" gives 2,450,000 results). Comments?

Update 09Apr2008: It seems there's an almost unlimited number of links that could be added. Here's another review of Susan Pinker's book, from the New York Times. Here's an entertaining retort to an argument about gender differences based on evolutionary psychology. And here's a piece that argues: "Nowhere do scientific findings get more mangled than when they’re about the differences between men and women." Finally, here's a conservative view on gender differences.

Update 11Apr2008: Here's a response to some of the arguments about single-sex schooling.

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Blogger neko128 said...

In my admittedly inexpert opinion (I'm a computer scientist, damnit, not a behavioral psychologist or biologist!) I've often found psychological effects to be as significant, or moreso, than biological effects. I guess it reduces to the almost-painful "you can do anything you set your mind to!" trope, but that doesn't mean it is all that far from the truth. Feeling confident you can do something and having the motivation to carry through can go a long way to overcome biological impediments.

9:17 AM, April 09, 2008  
Blogger Nuclear Mom said...

I am anxious to read your linked articles.

I am a female Ph.D. scientist in the physical/chemical/nuclear sciences raising two young children - a boy and a girl. I find the topic fascinating both from my perspective in my professional career as well as in observing my children - who granted are two data points and therefore not indicative of a trend.

1:11 PM, April 09, 2008  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

I agree that observing the gender development of one's own children is very interesting. The trouble is, there are so many confounders! Even when parents make every effort to raise boys and girls in pretty much the way, it's so easy to slip into ingrained habits. Then there's the influence of grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends, neighbours, television, movies, products in stores, organized religion ... Did I leave anything out?

Preconceived notions of gender differences can easily bias our interpretations. When the observed differences are concordant with the gender model we regard them as confirmatory. When they are discordant, we can always say, "He was born second, so that explains it," or "She spent a lot of time in daycare, so that explains it."

1:40 PM, April 09, 2008  
Anonymous Mitch said...

Dude, you said that gender differences are a subject of "broad" interest.

Do you really even need to motivate discussing gender differences? Especially by appealing to some hypothetical population in which interest is widespread? If it interests you, blog about it. That's enough. It's a blog!

Seriously, though, the fact that biological and cultural effects are so hard to disentangle makes moot the issue of which one is responsible for what. Healthy recognition of individual variation is the right attitude regardless.

If your daughter is really into computers, does it matter whether it's biology or culture that makes her unique? You teach her that everyone's different (both their genes and their upbringing), and that she should go in whatever direction her individual interests take her. The rest is noise.

Anecdotally, I work in bioinformatics, and the gender ratio in academic biology in the US is so dramatically different from the gender ratio in academic computer science. At the more biology-oriented conferences there's a large (majority? I'm not sure) fraction of women, but at the more informatics-oriented conferences it's very heavily male. Interestingly, though, the people from outside the US at the informatics conferences do tend to be more evenly split than the Americans.

6:34 AM, April 10, 2008  
Blogger Nick Barrowman said...

I think that part of what interests me about the subject of gender differences is that there is such a lot of interest about it in our society. Science, the press, popular writers, ideologues, and politicians all get in on it. This "noise" wouldn't matter much except that it has important consequences in terms of child rearing recommendations, education (e.g. the movement for single-sex schooling), relations between the sexes, government policies, ...

9:17 AM, April 10, 2008  
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