Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A Stereotype: Women Talk More Than Men

It's easy and sometimes useful to boil the world down into sound-bites, into slogans that are easy to process, easy to remember, easy to refer to when you're trying to make a decision. But those slogans, familiar and pleasing as they may be, often act as filters to eliminate the tangled details of life that actually comprise "reality." When we summarize a person's belief system in a word, for instance we say they're a "liberal" or a "fascist" or whatever, we are filtering out all details of their life, channeling our knowledge of them into one quick summary, and when he discuss that person, when we try to predict what they're going to say, how they're going to feel about something, we are most likely going to be wrong.

Our country is led by a man who has said he doesn't do nuance. He's proud of it. Once he's got his stereotypes assigned, he's ready to start making decisions, that's why he's so good at being a Decider. It's easy for him. Well, not all of us are that comfortable with filtering the reality out of a situation, especially an important one, and then making decisions based on the dessicated residue.

In that light, journalism professor Caryl Rivers, writing in the Boston Globe, has studied a situation that has been bothering a few people for a long time. The stereotype that women talk more than men is one that persists no matter what. It was funny on I Love Lucy, but as a scientific theory of how people behave, or as a piece of information used to determine policy, it doesn't hold water. To break the stereotype requires doing nuance.
WOMEN ARE THE chatty sex, using three times as many words each day as men. They are society's great communicators. The verbal parts of their brains are larger than men's and they are hard-wired for empathy, but they lack a natural ability to reach the top levels of math and science.

Men, on the other hand, have brains that are good at understanding systems, and they are adept at acquiring and using power. They are hard-wired to excel at math and science, but lag behind women in reading ability. They talk less and are not naturally inclined toward caring for others.

Sound familiar? In the past decade, such claims have coalesced into an almost unshakable conventional wisdom: Boys and girls are different because their brains are different. This idea has driven bestsellers, parenting articles, and even - increasingly - American education.

The problem is, a hard look at the real data behind these claims suggests they are simply untrue. Some of them are baseless, using the language of science to cloak an absence of serious research; others are built on tenuous studies, with methodological flaws and narrow margins of significance. More and more, they are simply coating old-fashioned stereotypes with a veneer of scientific credibility. The difference myth

We flatter ourselves by believing that we carefully evaluate the truthfulness of every statement we consider, that we judge facts carefully and retain only the ones that pass the test. The truth is, we may reject outright falsehoods (though not always) when we detect them, but we also take into account the effort involved in adopting a new belief. For instance, there is less cognitive effort involved in accepting a fact that is consistent with the beliefs we already hold than one that challenges our beliefs. As a favorite example, we are thrown into a dilemma when someone we despise says something we agree with. It's uncomfortable: could we have a mistaken opinion about this person? Maybe we can find something wrong in what they just said. It is much easier when the people we don't like say stupid things.

Likewise, it's easy to believe that scientific research supports a comfortable stereotype. Doesn't mean it does.

Here's why this matters.
Scientists have turned up some intriguing findings of anatomical differences between the sexes. But we know very little about their real-world effect on how boys and girls behave - meaning that any conclusions based on these findings are premature.

Nonetheless, more policy makers, employers, parents, and teachers appear to be buying into the notion of great gender differences in cognitive abilities. The education world has seen a strong push for single-sex classrooms, with the Bush administration clearing the way for more public schools to segregate students by gender.

There are now more than 360 such classrooms in the United States, with more in the offing. And brain-difference theories are making their way into business, medicine, psychotherapy, and parenting. As they do, we risk letting an avalanche of dubious science overwhelm decades of legitimate findings - and, more importantly, we risk limiting the futures of a whole generation of boys and girls.

This doesn't mean men and women are the same in every way, obviously that's not true; the sexual dichotomy runs very deep in our biology, our sex is definitely an important part of who we are. Here we are talking about making decisions about education, deciding public policies, based on our knowledge of sexual differences, and this writer is pointing out that it is a hard topic to discuss objectively. Personally I enjoy the spark that sometimes leaps between anode and cathode, making the world a more beautiful place, but that doesn't mean anybody needs to see differences where there aren't any. To my mind, this is the distinction between sexuality and sexism. It's hard but not impossible to have the one without the other, seems to me it requires ... nuance.

This is a pretty long article, and I can't paste the whole thing in here. I recommend that you follow the link and read it, it's a bit of an eye-opener, she walks through some of the history of this mistaken belief and how it has been perpetuated over the years.
If girls get the short end of the stick in the math and science wars, boys also get their share of knocks from the new biological determinism. Males are increasingly seen as inherently deficient in verbal abilities. In The New Republic, education author Richard Whitmire writes of a "verbally drenched curriculum" that is "leaving boys in the dust." One suggested solution is boys-only classrooms in which boys would be taught in boot-camp fashion, with diminished emphasis on verbal abilities. Gurian writes approvingly of the '50s-style classrooms "that kept a lot of boys in line."

Do most boys lack verbal skills? In a word, no. In 2005, the University of Wisconsin's Janet Hyde synthesized data from 165 studies on verbal ability and gender and found a slight female superiority - a difference measurable in statistics, but so small as to be useless in distinguishing real-world boys and girls.

I first became aware of this issue over the past year, reading Language Log blog, a fascinating ongoing discussion of the quirks and the science of language. Those guys have been following this for a long time, scratching their heads, wondering why people keep believing this stuff in spite of all the evidence. This Globe article goes into the background a little bit:
But the idea that boys are less verbal has gained wide currency. In the 2006 bestseller "The Female Brain," author Louann Brizendine argues that girls and women are the talkative sex, while males remain naturally strong and silent. A woman uses 20,000 words per day, while a man uses only 7,000, she asserts.

Brizendine is an academic neuropsychiatrist, and her statistic has been repeated in publications around the world. But it appears to be completely bogus. Brizendine's footnotes cite pop psychology writer Allan Pease - but Mark Liberman, a professor of linguistics and computer science at the University of Pennsylvania, has traced her citations in his popular blog Language Log, and says that Pease's work offers no source for the numbers.

In fact there is better, newer science that suggests those figures are wrong. The most recent study of word use found men and women in a statistical dead heat, with women clocking in at 16,215 words per day and men at 15,699. When that study was published earlier this year in Science, its coauthor, James Pennebaker of the University of Texas, Austin, made a specific point of debunking Brizendine's claims.

The "scientific" finding seems to have materialized out of thin air. Then it gets repeated as fact, until the original source is untraceable.

The lesson here is not necessarily about whether women are more verbal than men. The lesson is about filtering information, simplifying the world, dealing with skeletal stereotypes that have had the meaning sucked out of them. In Montgomery County (you knew I was going to come around to this) we have, on one hand, a group that wants to perpetuate a hateful old stereotype about gay people, that they're promiscuous, diseased, child molesters, and on the other hand a group that sees gay people as people. Not necessarily as perfect people, but our side takes them one at a time. You can be a gay idiot. You can be gay and promiscuous, whatever, we aren't obligated to automatically like you. Stereotype versus no-stereotype pretty much sums up the debate on sexual orientation in the MCPS curriculum, doesn't it?

Everybody relies on stereotypes and simplification to get through the day. It would be stupid not to, you'd be constantly stressed and overwhelmed if you tried to react to every situation as if it were entirely novel and unknown. But you have to at least be able to do nuance sometimes. You have to be able to stretch your simplifications, to adjust your stereotypes, they need to be based on your actual experience and not some social norm that serves only to filter the reality out of the world.


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