Let’s say good-bye to the straw-feminist



by Cordelia Fine

“This was not a permissible hypothesis”.

That was social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s recent explanation of the outrage that followed Lawrence Summers’ speech at a conference on the under-representation of women in science and engineering, in which he suggested that women are on average intrinsically less capable of high-level mathematical and scientific thinking.

Haidt’s depiction of the way in which scientific thinking can be distorted by “sacred values”, and his portrayal of Lawrence Summers as the victim of censorious political correctness, evoke two familiar protagonists in the sex differences debate. There’s the hero, who doesn’t let political values get in the way of the search for scientific truth. And then, there’s the villain of the piece.

That bogeywoman – the truth-fearing feminist – haunted me during a photo shoot I endured shortly after my book, Delusions of Gender, was published last year.

“Just relax,” the photographer pleaded.

We were in the garden, and since the photo and accompanying article were to appear in the Family section of the newspaper, it was apparently necessary to provide readers with visual evidence of my own. I’d been promised that my husband and children would be in the background, blurred. (This, you understand, was to protect their privacy rather than my limelight.) But I was still tense, because in my mind was a vivid image of how this photo could turn out.

Picture it. In the foreground, the blithely smiling author of the controversial new book that claims to tear apart the myth that science has shown that boys will be boys. Behind her, out of sight, her two sons fight furiously with sticks.


 In the interminable sex differences debate it always seems to be those who are critical of scientific claims of essential differences who are accused of allowing political desires to blinker them to the facts of the case. A century ago a medical professional commented in the New York Times that “the dear women are ‘obsessed’ with their fitness for all things masculine which blinds them to a sane view of their biological limitations.” Today’s admonishments, sometimes only a little less condescending, suggest a way of thinking about the relationship between politics and science that is inspired by stereotypes: the agenda-driven feminist who requires everyone to ignore what does not fit her ideology; and the detached spokesperson of science.

And so, in the aftermath of the Summers controversy Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker suggested that the “taboo” of innate sex differences drove a “refusal to glance at the scientific literature”. In a more recent commentary, entitled “Daring to discuss women in science”, New York Times columnist John Tierney quipped that the evidence presented in his article put him at “risk of being shipped off” to a gender equity workshop (a hellish fate, indeed), and asked whether it would be “safe” in such a workshop “for someone to mention the new evidence supporting Dr. Summers’s controversial hypothesis about differences in the sexes’ aptitude for math and science”. 

A similar theme emerged when The Sexual Paradox author Susan Pinker was asked to comment on my book, which argues that we don’t yet know whether, on average, males and females are born differently predisposed to understanding the world versus understanding people. Pinker responded that the results of scientific investigations of sex differences “describe what is, not what we might choose if we were designing a perfect world. These are compelling studies that add to our understanding of human development. Why would we ignore them?” And while a review of my book by The Essential Difference author and Cambridge psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen generously acknowledged its scholarship, the instantly recognizable stereotype was nonetheless lurking in all its unalluring glory: I was “strident”; in pursuit of a “barely veiled agenda”; and guilty of the “mistaken blurring of science with politics.”

Again and again, the target is a familiar one and should be recognized for what it is: a straw-feminist.

Summers’ remarks deserved to draw fire. This is not because the ideas were politically impermissible: indeed, the notion that women are inherently less likely to be exceptional because they show less variability in psychological traits was presented in a best-selling book by Steven Pinker; Summers’s suggestion that males are biologically predisposed to be more interested in pursuing a scientific career forms part of an actively investigated hypothesis about sex differences. Rather, his comments merited indignation because scientifically they were not well-considered, sometimes nothing short of offensively so.

There is not blanket denial of the pattern of sex differences in high-level mathematical achievement referred to by Tierney – what is legitimately disputed is the chalking-up of this difference to ‘inherent’ potential, and the extent to which they can explain women’s under-representation in mathematics and science.

Nor does my book (which has been unappealingly described as “relentlessly methodological” in its “striving for scientific correctness”) “ignore” the supposedly compelling evidence for the neurological and hormonal origins of essential differences in male and female minds. Rather, again and again I argue that – because of under-acknowledgment of social factors, spurious results, poor methodologies, and untested assumptions – the evidence scientists and commentators provide as support for essentialist claims is simply not as strong as they seem to think. 

Strawman By Mr. Greenjeans,
Mr. Greenjeans

It’s portraying those who challenge scientific claims about essentially different male and female minds as more interested in politics than science. Let’s say good-bye to that straw-feminist. And, while she’s leaving, let’s also close the door behind her antithesis, the value-free mouthpiece of scientific facts. These characterizations aren’t just inaccurate, they’re also unproductive. Progress will be faster if we move beyond stereotypes and start thinking about the relationship between science and politics in this debate in a more sophisticated way.

One such approach is offered by philosopher of science Heather Douglas in her challenge of the ideal of value-free science. Douglas is clear that political values should never, ever play a direct role in scientific reasoning. Obviously, that the results of a particular study support one’s political values should not be taken to increase the evidential support; wishful thinking doesn’t allow us to ignore evidence that goes against our desires.

However, Douglas argues that social values can safely play an indirect role in scientific reasoning, by “shifting the level of what counts as sufficient warrant for an empirical claim.” So, we might demand a higher standard of evidence for the claim that a pill will keep a fatal disease at bay than for the claim it will make our hair glossy. The higher the social costs of potential error, the better the standard of evidence we require.

Uncomfortable though this idea may make those involved in this debate, this perspective helps us to see the stereotypes for the illusions they are, and to better understand the true source of a clash. Science does not yield certainty: methodologies, statistical methods, background assumptions, and interpretation all build layer upon layer of potential error into the scientific ‘facts’ that are ultimately produced. This leaves us with scope for two kinds of disagreement, and it’s probably helpful to know which we are dealing with.

Sometimes, the clash might be over the strength of the evidence – the actual warrant for a scientific claim. Steven Pinker soothed irrationally outraged readers with the information that variations in sex hormones, “especially before birth, can exaggerate or minimize the typical male and female patterns in cognition and personality”, before complaining that a mentality of taboo “needlessly puts a laudable cause [the modern women’s movement] on a collision course with the findings of science”. Yet the empirical case that prenatal hormones help wire sex differences in math, science, and other sex-typical talents and interests is, as Brain Storm author Rebecca Jordan-Young put it, more of “a hodge-podge pile than a solid structure”, leaving us with little more than scientific “rubble” to be cleared. Egalitarian aspirations don’t collide with rubble – they can sail right over it. 

But we can also, according to Douglas, legitimately disagree over whether empirical warrant is sufficient. As Anne Fausto-Sterling argued in Myths of Gender, “[h]ow much and how strong the proof one demands before accepting a conclusion is a matter of judgment, a judgment that is embedded in the fabric of one’s individual belief system.” Deciding the ‘best’ judgment is not just a scientific issue but also a political one – how do you weigh the social costs of getting it wrong?

Considering a legitimate, indirect role for political values in the debate might help move it along – and encourage those who think they are keeping the science separate from politics to think again. Do Summers’ defenders find unusually insightful his observation that his twin daughters referred to their toy trucks as Daddy and Baby, and think that it really does tell us “something that [we] probably have to recognize” about women’s intrinsic scientific interests? Or are their political values such that even anecdotes have sufficient warrant in this particular debate?

Kids playing road hockey By Spacing Magazine,
Spacing Magazine  

What about claims of sex differences in the brain, sometimes speculatively linked to aptitude in science and maths? Small sample sizes, noisy data, publication bias, and teething problems with statistical analysis techniques leave this literature littered with spurious findings of sex differences. So where does the disagreement lie between the neuroscientist or commentator who reports a sex difference in the brain, and the critic of that empirical claim? Does the former have a far more optimistic view of the study’s reliability? Or is she less concerned about the social fall-out should her claim about the difference between the male and the female brain turn out to be wrong?And do commentators who think the evidence points to ‘innate’ male superiority, on average, in mathematics see the complex empirical situation – the cross-cultural differences in means, variability and exceptional mathematical success, the social influences we know of and those we don’t, the patterns of change in the past and the unknown shifts of the future – differently to those who are less sure? Or, in the absence of certainty, is it political values that push the two sides to different judgments? In other words, is it only the science we should be debating? Or does disagreement also stem from social and ethical values: whether it is worse to waste resources pointlessly riling against implacable nature or, as Stephen J. Gould put it, to commit the injustice of “a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within”.In the end, the photographer captured one of my sons throwing and catching a ball, while the other cuddled his pet chicken. No parent can fail to wonder how the little people they create come to be who they are, and the scientific explanations we are offered are not psychologically inert. The work of Haidt’s colleagues in social psychology is gathering support for AJ Herschel’s suggestion that “[a] theory about man enters his consciousness, determines his self-understanding, and modifies his very existence.” We can never be certain that we’ve got those scientific stories right, but we have a responsibility to do the best we can. And the straw-feminist is getting in the way. When criticisms are dismissed as ‘political’ – to be contrasted with one’s own, value-free scientific judgment – we learn nothing new about the quality of the scientific evidence, the hidden work of political values in the scientific debate, or where difference of opinion truly lies. Throwing out that prickly, imaginary lady will give us a clearer picture of the landscape of barriers to disagreement. Then, we can make better moves to navigate them.

Piece originally published at PLOS Blogs  

About the Author:

Cordelia Fine is a Senior Research Associate at the Centre for Agency, Values & Ethics at Macquarie University, and an Honorary Research Fellow in Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne. Her latest book is Delusions of Gender.