Archive for the 'Sex' Category

Fences green the neighbor’s grass

I don’t know whether there are more pictures of cats or porn on the Internet today, but take them together and the pussy shot is the most unstoppable force in the global flood. Myself, I don’t get the draw of porn. Some artistic representation creates a surrogate or even replacement world; porn creates a void through constant reminder of the missing reality. I find it about as satisfying as pictures of food. And not much prettier. They say that beauty is only skin-deep, and when you’re staring down a girl’s orifices, that’s a problem.

On the other hand, a person will labor months or years to bring forth a book, a set of dead words on paper, but to conceive a living person, and violate the metaphysical law imposed on God himself, that a creator is unable to create something equal or greater than himself, can be done in a moment, without thought or skill, between plugs on the soured nipple of a tequila bottle. So maybe all the manufactured echoes and depictions, as well as the laws, limitations and restrictions surrounding sex are necessary to give it a magnitude and scope in the field of human invention commensurate with its worth, a cathedral built to hold that tiny reliquary, those few sorry minutes at the heart of it all. For instance, I’m pretty sure my Puerto Rican friend in the department here was conceived during one of the brief treaties between rum and the Catholic Church. Not his creation itself but the obstacles in its way, as well as the means of sliding past them, are the true works of art and finesse.

Mathematics and sex

In reference to Curt’s latest post, I feel obligated to make a quick comment on the linked discussion between Steven Pinker and Elizabeth Spelke, specifically Spelke’s comments on mathematical aptitude. Now, I’m not (yet) a card-carrying member of the mathematical establishment, but I like to think two years in an Ivy League Ph.D. program has given me some insight into how mathematics works, certainly more than I think Spelke, despite her apparently solid reputation as a psychologist, demonstrates. Her argument is that any difference between men and women in performance in the hard sciences and mathematics is socially, not biologically, determined.1 Okay, as valid a hypothesis as any other. What’s her evidence?

Well, it turns out to be surprisingly elusive, especially coming on the heels of Pinker’s well-reasoned argument that there is some biological basis for the difference of performance between men and women. Of course, she’s right that it’s misleading to look at, e.g., the SAT math test to provide a definitive answer, because the writers of that test can tweak it to get pretty much any result they want (although it is interesting to note that she apparently doesn’t even consider the possibility that the writers of the test are trying to create a test that most closely tests mathematical aptitude, whatever that is, instead talking about how “they can create a test that makes women look like better mathematicians, or a test that makes men look like better mathematicians”). That having been said, it seems downright disingenuous to me for her to acknowledge that males and females tend to have different cognitive profiles, while denying that there’s any chance that has an effect on aptitude for mathematics:2

Finally, the mathematical word problems on the SAT-M very often allow multiple solutions. Both item analyses and studies of high school students engaged in the act of solving such problems suggest that when students have the choice of solving a problem by plugging in a formula or by doing Ven [sic] diagram-like spatial reasoning, girls tend to do the first and boys tend to do the second.

This comes as a continual surprise to non-mathematicians (who imagine that mathematicians sit around doing more and more complicated arithmetic and calculus problems all day), but plugging into a formula is virtually worthless from a mathematical perspective, whereas “Ven[n] diagram-like spatial reasoning” is fundamentally similar to the sort of thinking that a professional mathematician does. Thus, if women tend to be plug-and-chug types, it shouldn’t really be a surprise that they are underrepresented in mathematics departments. Of course, this doesn’t demonstrate that there’s any biological basis to the difference, but Spelke’s apparent contention that plug-and-chug methodology and more abstract reasoning constitute equivalent levels of mathematical aptitude seems pretty naïve.

That having been said, she does make a strong argument when she points out that women and men get equal grades in math classes in college and are math majors in roughly equal numbers. However, it needs to be pointed out that undergraduate math courses and professional mathematics are qualitatively different, not just quantitatively, which Spelke implicitly assumes:

I suggest the following experiment. We should take a large number of male students and a large number of female students who have equal educational backgrounds, and present them with the kinds of tasks that real mathematicians face. We should give them new mathematical material that they have not yet mastered, and allow them to learn it over an extended period of time: the kind of time scale that real mathematicians work on. We should ask, how well do the students master this material? The good news is, this experiment is done all the time. It’s called high school and college.

The qualitative difference is the following: in undergraduate math courses (at least in my experience), performance is based largely on one’s ability to internalize a few examples and follow their template in solving other (relatively easy) problems; the professional mathematician must take known results and integrate them in a novel way to solve problems nobody has ever solved before (which, given that they are unsolved, are pretty much universally very, very difficult). The former is, needless to say, much more amenable to the plug-and-chug mindset than the latter.

Spelke summarizes this section of her argument as follows:

The outcome of this large-scale experiment gives us every reason to conclude that men and women have equal talent for mathematics. Here, I too would like to quote Diane Halpern. Halpern reviews much evidence for sex differences, but she concludes, “differences are not deficiencies.” Men and women have equal aptitude for mathematics. Yes, there are sex differences, but they don’t add up to an overall advantage for one sex over the other.

Again, this is just disingenuous. The outcome of this large-scale experiment is not that men and women have equal talent for “mathematics”; it is that they have equal talent for undergraduate mathematics classes. Certainly, high performance in undergraduate math classes is a prerequisite for getting into graduate school, which is, in turn, a prerequisite for getting a Ph.D. and becoming a math professor, but, as untold grad school dropouts can tell you, there’s a hell of a difference between the sort of thinking that you do as an undergrad and the sort of thinking you must do as a “real” mathematician (in this context, it’s telling that Spelke uses the fact that 57% of accountants are women as evidence that women have the same mathematical aptitude as men). Of course, maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that a psychologist has an apparently naïve view of what constitutes professional-grade mathematical aptitude when psychology styles itself (these days, anyway) as an empirical science, which is to say an analytic discipline, while mathematics is practically the definition of a synthetic discipline.

Now, this is not to say that there aren’t significant social causes of the male/female discrepancy in the hard sciences and mathematics (in fact, I really haven’t said anything at all about biology; it’s certainly possible that all of the above differences are due to social factors). Spelke makes good points about how parents seem to perceive the performance and capabilities of male vs. female children differently and how faculty hiring committees tend to receive male candidates more favorably than equally qualified female candidates (this latter should come as no surprise to readers of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, which touches on the fact that a significant contributor to the increasing gender balance of classical symphonies in the last few decades is the fact that virtually all reputable symphonies these days conduct auditions with the candidate performing behind a screen). These and probably many other social factors almost certainly play a role in women’s under-representation in math and science; as may be, Spelke’s apparent ignorance of mathematics makes it hard to accept her position on the issue which is, as Pinker rightly points out at the beginning of his presentation, extreme.

1. I’m quite aware that in this post I’m cherry-picking from Spelke’s argument by addressing only that component of it which I feel like I have some expertise in. I’m not trying to offer a comprehensive rebuttal of her argument and just because I disagree with what is essentially one point in a larger argument do I mean to suggest that the other points are also wrong. As usual, it’s probably best to read it for yourself and draw your own conclusions.
2. The usual caveat applies: when I talk about men or women having more or less aptitude for something, I’m speaking of statistical averages (to whatever degree those even make sense), not of individual people. There are plenty of women who are wonderful mathematicians (some of whom I’m lucky enough to know) and countless men who are abject morons (many of whom I also know); the old adage that statistics lie and liars use statistics is never more true than when someone tries to use statistics to “prove” statements about individuals.

Finally I get to use the “sex” category!

Steven Pinker and Elizabeth Spelke debating the issue of the day at Harvard, probably the only issue of any importance in the world, as Pinker implies, if your view of the universe begins and ends in Harvard Yard. It seems to me that Pinker has the better case, since, as he points out, Spelke’s evidence is largely about general mundane mental activity, not the sort of highly specialized and possibly male-favorable kind of work that is specific to university-level scientists. However, there is really nothing the least bit conclusive about any of it, and I am inclined to side with Pinker only because his claim is the more modest and intuitive one. In other words, I can’t understand how any of these very tentative hypotheses are being taken as having immediate implications on public policy, and not just within the university. After all, what do Pinker and Spelke disagree on at the practical level? He calls himself a feminist, with her it pretty much goes without saying. They both no doubt wish to end discrimination, and hopefully not only against women, and make scientific merit the criterion in hiring and admissions.

But I imagine that this assumption of immediate applicability comes about precisely because at least one faction, probably the one to which Pres. Summers was addressing his comments in the first place, has taken an absolutist and extremely over-deterministic attitude, predicated on the view that not only are there no differences in cognitive ability between the sexes (which are obviously just social constructs anyway), and not only is a rigid 50-50 parity in employment desirable, but a failure to attain this goal is itself prima facie evidence of discrimination. In the way of opposing this notion it perhaps behooves me to criticize the whole notion of using statistical blocks as specific social goals in this way, since the practice transcends this particular issue. My hometown, for example, has apparently decided to institute a monthly harvest–sorry, I mean quota–of DUI arrests.

In this case the folly of such quotas is perhaps more evident. For example, suppose hypothetically that there simply are not as many drunk drivers to be accosted as are called for in the quota (hardly an absurd possibility, since it simply takes a couple of over-zealous bureaucrats inflating statistics and/or possibility). Logically, some non-drunk drivers would have to be arbitrarily arrested to fulfill the quota. If the officers had consciences they probably wouldn’t do it, but the very issue proves the cleft between the actual goal (hopefully), which is apprehending criminals and reducing crime, and the artificial authoritarian goal, which is attaining a monthly haul of arrests. In academia I don’t think it is any more ludicrous to presume that, even should men and women be fundamentally “equal” in scientific ability, in any given year there will surely almost never be an exactly equal number of qualified candidates from both genders. This is usually not a problem, since statistics are simply meant to more or less reflect reality, not prescribe it. But as any quantum physicist will tell you, the statistical fuzziness is never as precise as we would desire it, and if the point gets pushed it will result in some less-qualified candidates being hired. I would go further and assert that while incidental discrimination may be a result of the present system, a quota system is virtually the only way to institutionally mandate it.

Why should this be the case? Well, why don’t scientists write up their conclusions before performing the experiments? Assuming an outcome in advance, no matter what it is, betrays a fundamental inflexibility to reality. Even if police set a quota of arrests which decreases every year, they really can’t guarantee a commensurate decrease in crime. The reason that fuzziness is built into statistical analysis is because there is an implicit assumption that it is only an approximation, that reality can always exceed or disappoint expectations, etc. So if one wishes to remain “within the conditions of life,” as Flaubert would say, then one must, like a scientist, focus on the methodology, but not presume the outcome. So perhaps if there is a reason scientists are rushing to try to resolve an issue that they know well (and say so on several occaisons in the transcript) cannot be decided with any competent degree of certainty at the present, it is probably in response to those that made up their minds at the very outset.