Sugar and Spice

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | June 11, 2010 3:21 pm

Dr. Isis and I recently had similar reactions to John Tierney’s NYTime’s piece Daring to Discuss Women’s Potential in Science.  What’s so “daring” John? It’s been discussed. Over and over and over and back again. I was as bored as Isis, until I reached his uh, “daring” question:

I’m all in favor of women fulfilling their potential in science, but I feel compelled, at the risk of being shipped off to one of these workshops, to ask a couple of questions:

1) Would it be safe during the “interactive discussions” for someone to mention the new evidence supporting Dr. Summers’s controversial hypothesis about differences in the sexes’ aptitude for math and science?

And then I was just frustrated. I mean really, do we have to continue to “debate” this? Sure it sparks a lively comment thread, but I’m tired of it. Furthermore there are so many aspects of gender disparity Tierney fails to mention that have a role in academic performance. So I wasn’t impressed and decided not to re-write the same post I’ve composed countless times in the past.

Fortunately, the domestic and laboratory goddess did have the stomach to respond, so go take a look

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Education
MORE ABOUT: John Tierney

Comments (15)

  1. Jess

    I know! Tierney’s piece reminded me we have a long way to go.

  2. John

    Instead of interjecting your own opinions into this matter, I would have hoped you would have instead talked about the lack of utility these inquiries have. Politically, such studies are useless as they should not affect policy. Acadimically, they are right now a mess of unmeasurable and complicated variables.
    I can’t decifer why you would lend agreement to such a poorly written post on the matter. Dr. Isis, while taking the more uncontroversial side, scientifically is no better than Tierney. She seems to have a opinion on the matter. For example, the studies she mentions fall prey to the same arguments she uses to refute studies with the opposite conclusion ( e.g. The cultural differences between Japan and America can play a large role ( read unmeasurable variable) ). And on your side, you link to a study that says absolutly nothing in this argument ( Untill we know the degree of self-selection and cultural impacts, all we can take from that study is that of the wemon who play chess they are on the same footing as the men who play chess ).
    I would hope you would realize there is no strong evidence for either side. I would hope as well that you would be open to the possiblily that gender differences do exist. Afterall, we accept without question obvious physical differences. Is it so unplausible that the physical differences in the brain could lead to differences in mental processing? Granted the brain is a very complex system and such differences can average out into such minute differences as to be meaningless. The last sentance of Dr. Isis’s article strikes me as particularly opinionated
    “Left with this, I can’t help but wonder what Tierney would say about the debate over race and intelligence. I will be perched here, waiting for him to dare to tackle that issue.”
    Why do we allow ourselves to be so persuaded by political correctness. If we ever have the means to do decent studies on the matter, there is good science to be had ( what is intelligence, how does the brain work, how and why do the two brains differ). There is no good evidence on either of these issues. Instead of taking a side, take no side. When you talk about the politics of a issue, keep it just that. Hah, Unscientifc America.

  3. I am taking a side. I am taking the side that John is not capable of spelling, much less of stringing together a coherent thought. I am also going to take the side that “expressing how completely freaking tired I am of having the same damn discussion 457,832,823 times and seeing it have no discernible impact on stolid d00dly brains convinced that their d00dliness is all they need to know about the world” is not equal to “interjecting your own opinions”, i.e., saying something that is baseless or that is no more or less valuable than what came out of some other wingnut’s mouth after a random neuron fired.

    I wrote on my blog that Tierney’s purpose is to speak to those who aren’t sure what they think and get them riled up, and to stir up conservative male scientists and get them worried about radical women forcing them into mind control workshops. But another purpose is to burn the energy and time of women scientists and their supporters, by causing us to have to address his spew – to turn our attention away from other more positive pursuits and have to deal with the same damn thing we’ve already dealt with, for the 457,832,824th time.

  4. Marion Delgado

    There are some lines one should not cross. Taking on the distinguished John Tierney – who’s never been wrong that I know of – and Larry Summers, the architect of our current economic triumphs – is one of them. Fpr instance, once John taught me that salt had no relationship whatsoever to blood pressure, I went back to heavily salted foods. My guess is that liberal antinomian farcicality has far more effect on my system than harmless sodium chloride. This is reminiscent of DDT, which is so beneficial and harmless, as Tierney has shown, that it should probably be a nutritional supplement – the jihad by ur-Watermelon Woman Rachel Carson all by itself establishes doubt as to women’s potential abilities in chemistry, doubt that mere censorship of politically incorrect views can’t possibly silence.

    It astonishes me that people push ignoramuses like Stephen Chu or John Holdren with their chimeras about climate change, drought, and so on, and ignore pioneering minds like Tierney’s.

    Or the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Chris Horner for that matter. I blame the lack of school vouchers for the chronic illiteracy that makes the gullible side with the so-called experts against what’s obviously correct.

  5. John

    I apologize for my terrible spelling, and the degree to which my post seemed like a personal attack. Since I know you are sick of having this discussion, let me just say that I am not defending Tierney, quite the opposite, he is after all a huge idiot. And you seem to think that I want to uphold a bias against female scientist (” Let’s take a hard manly look at this so-called evidence for the so-called bias against female scientists. Puh-leeze. “, John Q. Public). This is not the case at all. As I said before, these studies should have nothing to say about policy. Policy and education should be 100% gender neutral . I understand that is currently not the case, but that is a discussion for politics. What I wanted to discuss was the seemingly subtle use of a negative proof (

    I am simply trying to say that none of the studies can really say much about the differences in intelligence between the two genders, there is simply too much noise in the data. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t responsible science to be had in this area. Assuming, the male in female brains are equivalent in ALL abilities, how cool would it be to explain exactly how that is achieved with different physical structures.

    I don’t know how that makes me math illiterate. Sorry for any misspelled words or incoherent thoughts, I hope my point is a little more clear this time.

  6. Nullius in Verba

    Sheril, Zuska,

    If you’re bored with the debate, why take part?

    If you’re going to refute it, then do it properly. If you’re not going to refute it, then why draw attention to it by linking to it and moaning about how you’re not even going to bother answering it? As a rhetorical technique it doesn’t work: – it looks like a bluff and the ‘boredom’ doesn’t seem genuine; on the contrary, it looks more like you care deeply enough to enter the debate and fire off a shot, but don’t want to commit yourself to having to argue the full case. That may well be incorrect, but it’s the impression you give by half-heartedly taking part while saying you’re not.

    It is, in any case, entirely irrelevant which sex does better at maths and science. That sort of “who’s best?” game is something that women have often criticised men for playing. It doesn’t matter. They’re all people. And irrespective of sex, weight, iris colour, or blood group, people should be free to do whatever they’re interested in and happen to be good at, for whatever reason – including cultural – without somebody coming along and deciding that they’re not wanting the things they ought to want (in their opinion) and trying to change it. I don’t agree with encouraging some ideologically selected subset of people into science any more than I agree with discouraging them. I don’t agree with anyone using the force of law to impose social/cultural changes on everyone else in accordance with their own personal preferences and beliefs. It’s illiberal.

    It doesn’t matter if there are more boys than girls going into maths, or vice versa, any more than it matters if there are more or less than the requisite number of left-handed people going into nursing. It’s their decision, not yours. (Or Congress’s.) And you can’t judge equality of opportunity by equality of outcome.

  7. Luna_the_cat

    Nullius in Verba, sometimes all one has patience for is to point out that the same lame arguments already HAVE been addressed, multiple times; and also,

    It doesn’t matter if there are more boys than girls going into maths, or vice versa, any more than it matters if there are more or less than the requisite number of left-handed people going into nursing. It’s their decision, not yours. (Or Congress’s.) And you can’t judge equality of opportunity by equality of outcome.

    Is a BS dodge of the real issue — the real issue being that girls and women hear, continuously from birth, a cultural refrain about being “less suited” to maths and engineering and related hard scientists, and encounter discouragement at multiple levels along the way. Maybe it’s “their choice” to drop out when faced with this constant discouragement, but to stop at “their choice” and not examine the fact that it isn’t a level playing field completely fails to deal with the problem in any sense.

  8. Nullius in Verba


    But why point anything out at all? The best thing, it would seem to me, is to ignore it.

    If people already know that the points have been addressed or can figure it out for themselves, there’s no need to say anything. If they don’t or can’t, then all you achieve by mentioning it is give people like Tierney free advertising for their side of the argument. How is that a good thing?

    “Is a BS dodge of the real issue […] completely fails to deal with the problem in any sense.”

    The point I was trying to get across is that other people’s cultures aren’t a “problem” to be “fixed”, and it is an extremely dangerous activity to try. I already said that I disagreed with discouraging people from entering maths and science, so the issue wasn’t dodged. But it isn’t at all clear that this is the main reason for the disparity; it’s a very complex situation of many inter-related factors.

    There are all sorts of cultural biases at work in job selection. Very few men go into nursing, for example. You could argue that it is because they’re told continually from birth that it is an unsuitable job for men, that they are continually discouraged. Or maybe that women are culturally more caring/nurturing, less aggressive. (Or even biologically less aggressive?!) Or maybe it is that nurses are low paid, and there are heavier social demands on men to stick it out for higher pay to support a family. Or that it is a nicer job, more rewarding, and more women can afford to accept low pay in exchange for the feeling that they’re doing good in the world. Or maybe it is that hospital human resource departments are biased to think women are better at it.

    Now, I have no particular opinion as to whether men or women are better at nursing; I suspect that it’s about even. The big question, though, is do we as a society think it is a problem that fewer men enter nursing? Do we think it is so essential to fix it, that we will introduce legislation to force hospital administrators to run courses to make them “aware” of gender bias? (Like they didn’t know.) That it is necessary to hunt down all the people who think nursing is an unsuitable job for men and make them change their unacceptable opinions, by force of law? Unacceptable in our view, of course, not theirs, or that of the rest of society.

    I am not aware of any widely expressed view that the obvious imbalance here is a “problem” that desperately needs to be addressed. I don’t know of any legislation to enforce a change, or any hospitals that have been prosecuted or even investigated for their bias. The same may be said of a dozen other jobs with sex-dependent distributions – coal miners, construction workers, primary school teachers, part-time cleaners – the list of jobs where inequality of outcome matters is a short one. Nor does anyone seem interested in monitoring other personal characteristics besides sex, race, and sexuality. You are apparently allowed to discriminate against fat people as much as you like – there’s no law I know of against it. This is not a general principle of fairness and neutrality, uniformly applied.

    Everybody is equal, but some of them are more equal than others.

    You may respond by saying that the above only means that even more legislation is needed. But from my culturally-biased point of view, I don’t care about being ‘discouraged’ from going into nursing. I don’t see it as a problem that absolutely must be solved, by legislation if necessary. If men want to be nurses and hospitals want to employ them, they should be allowed to, but after that any encouragement or discouragement is a matter of free speech. Legislation should be reserved for more substantial matters. You might disagree with the point I was actually trying to make, (and probably will,) but I’m not dodging the point or failing to deal with it.

  9. Luna_the_cat

    Nullius, the “why say anything? Just let it pass” attitude is why so many people hold pig-ignorant views of gender capabilities and the “rightness” of inequities. Things do not change unless and until they are confronted. And every single one of the arguments about “aptitude” and suitability” have been used before, to justify keeping women out of various fields, keeping them in low paid work, out of higher education entirely, out of the vote. Do you think any historical inequity or injustice has EVER changed because people just ignore it?? What world do you freaking live in???

    And, you know, if you noticed any of the links in the above posts, they go to discussions like, which is the actual discussion of the FACTS of why the bullshit is bullshit. More convenient for you to just ignore this and try to make everyone retype everything all over again so that you are not put to the work and trouble of even clicking away from the page? No, easier to condemn people for not doing all the work for you again for the n--millionth time, because then you can continue your comfortable ways of thinking unchallenged.

    Oh, wait. It’s the world where it’s “not my cultural problem” if people regard women as better suited to low-paid labour, and it’s “not my place” to fix any system which institutionalises unfairness. How awfully, awfully convenient for you — I’m guessing you are a white male? Since these issues haven’t ever handicapped you directly, and never will, and have never made you miserable, it is so wonderfully easy for you to spout easy-going complacent “other people’s cultures aren’t a ‘problem’ to be ‘fixed’” or “I don’t see it as a problem that absolutely must be solved” nonsense. Fundamentalist Muslims stone women to death for the crime of being raped? Hey, no problem; it’s their culture, we shouldn’t be trying to “fix” it. Girls told from the beginning of school that they aren’t much good at math? Who cares, it’s got cultural legitimacy, even if no factual basis. Fabulous. As long as you’re not the target, sure, it’s not a problem. Of course, it means you fail as a decent human being, but as long as that doesn’t inconvenience you, fine, right? You’re not trying to forbid anyone from doing anything.

    You did in fact dodge the issue, which is that thereIS a persistent, consistent, considerable and not fact-based discouragement which girls and women are faced with from Day 1, telling them that they aren’t as good in these fields, and should just accept it and go somewhere else. This is coupled with the institutional and endemic practices of paying women considerably less while in the same positions as men on the assumption that they don’t do it as well, regardless of evidence, and women not being advanced despite evidence of competence which would more than suffice for men — and then when women drop out of a field through frustration, using that dropout rate as justificaiton for the practice. You saying “well, they shouldn’t be discouraged” is pathetically weak sauce. Are you capable of understanding that?

    And sure, men are potentially being discouraged from taking on menial, low-paid, low status jobs (all too frequently considered “women’s work”) — which they can then comfortably romanticise from the armchair. Isn’t it NICE to talk about how “rewarding” the “caring” practice of nursing is, when you aren’t the one cleaning up shit, puke and bodily fluids at 2am? And men, of course, aren’t being discouraged from taking up, or systematically discriminated against in terms of pay or advancement in, any of the high-status, interesting and challenging, well-paid jobs, where as women most definitely are, so let’s not pretend that this is equal discouragement.

    The stories about biological tendencies universally make life more comfortable for men, and absolve them of responsibility for their own actions and biases. How nice for you. Do pardon me if those of us on the recieving end have a strong desire to kick this back in your teeth. Especially since every hard study ever done points to the fact that none of this is so conveniently “biological.”

  10. Luna_the_cat

    And pardon the spelling errors, I’m on a short lunch and in a hurry today, and this has no preview function.

    Points still stand. If you could bestir yourself out of your comfortable armchair of privilege enough to think about it from the point of view of someone on the receiving end, that’d sure be nice.

  11. Nullius in Verba


    Regarding the “let it pass attitude” – I actually suggested a choice: either refute it properly, or let it pass. What I couldn’t understand was why you would draw attention to it, but only provide links to equally dubious argumentation that fails to prove what it purports to prove. That’s not to say that your thesis hasn’t been, or can’t be proved. But those links don’t do it.

    You seem to be under some sort of impression that I agree with Tierney. I don’t, and for a number of reasons. And none of those reasons have anything to do with wanting the answer to come out a particular way. In any case, Tierney’s hypothesis is not something that would necessarily please men. His thesis that the distributions have the same mean but different variances would imply that there were more intensely stupid men than women, at the lower tail of the distribution. They would be even worse at maths and science than the worst of the women. He also claims that women are better at verbal reasoning and writing ability. If he was going to make something “comfortable” and “convenient” up, he could have done a better job of it.

    Now on to cultural change. My position here is a bit more complicated than a brief blog comment allowed. It’s well summarised by J.S. Mill’s famous passage on the Harm Principle. Rape and stoning to death are clearly distinguished in it from speech to advocate for this or that position. People can certainly speak in favour of cultural change – that was precisely how men like Mill brought about the equality of women – but legislating what opinions are and are not allowed is still dangerous.

    And while I doubt that it will do anything to calm your obvious anger, you might like to consider for a moment the condition of all the men at the bottom of the distribution. Almost all the worst jobs are done predominantly by men – the dangerous, laborious, boring, unpleasant and unpopular jobs: truck driver, sheet metal worker, roofer, boiler maker, lumberjack, construction worker, welder, iron worker, fisherman, miner, fire fighter, garbage collector. Over 90% of occupational deaths occur to men (60% if weighted by hours worked). More men work, and men work longer hours. The vast majority of men are excluded from the high-paying jobs too – all the blue-collar workers – and what high pay there is usually goes hand in hand with high risk. The pressure to survive and earn a wage is intense; the price of failure catastrophic. Bullying, office politics, and injustice are rife. The majority of suicides are amongst men.

    Men are more likely to be victims of violence. Men are more likely to be sent to prison. Men die years younger, with a significantly shorter life expectancy.

    And yes, people have tried to tell me that all of that is innate and biologically predestined, too.

    The truth is, life is hard – and it’s hard for both men and women. Most men don’t like to complain, and most modern women understand the point perfectly well anyway. It would be better to build bridges than walls.

  12. John

    Back to my main point. Logically, that Chess study doesn’t say what you think it does. It is very hard to draw general inferences from studies that are done on self selected individuals. That is bad science, which is what I have been saying all along.

    Now, unlike what Zuska interpreted my original post to say (even though I explicitly stated that the outcomes of such studies should not affect policy ), I am all for getting rid of gender biases and activly encouriging gender equality. And there isn’t any good evidence that the two genders differ in mental abilities. However, the evidence that they don’t is just as lacking. Both suffer from lack of controls, cultural factors, invalid comparisons, etc.

  13. Sorbet

    You might be interested in Tierney’s recent NYT article:

    “Also last year a task force of the National Academy of Sciences concluded from its investigation of 500 science departments that by and large, men and women “enjoyed comparable opportunities within the university.” The task force reported that at major research universities, female candidates “had a better chance of being interviewed and receiving offers than male job candidates had.”

    So why are women still such a minority in math-oriented sciences? The most balanced answer I’ve seen comes from two psychologists at Cornell, Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams — who, by the way, are married and have a daughter with a graduate degree in engineering. After reviewing hundreds of studies in their new book, “The Mathematics of Sex” (Oxford), they conclude that discrimination is no longer an important factor in keeping out women”

  14. Luna_the_cat

    Sorbet, did you even READ that book?

    They conclude that there are a variety of social factors which make women choose other careers…that overt discrimination doesn’t adequately explain it, but there are other factors which force women to “choose” different fields.

    @Nullius — right, and legislating that blacks needed to be allowed into the same schools as whites, and could not legally be discriminated against in jobs or housing…sure, that didn’t improve mainstream attitudes AT ALL. Hah. It’s a starting point, not a finishing point, but the fact is that unless a message is sent at the highest levels that certain things are or are not acceptable, most people will take that as implicit permission to continue on as they were.

    Incidentally, speaking of “refute it properly or let it pass” — you, Mr. Handwavey over there, have arbitrarily declared the links and studies “not good enough” but cannot be bothered to offer any reason why, or why we should not weight things like over vague traditional stereotypes of women “preferring” different fields or having different aptitudes, given that these ARE blatantly based on generations of socially limiting access to and approval of women in certain areas. Follow your own advice and explain why you think the studies showing no biologically-based gender difference “aren’t good enough”, or be branded a superior type of hypocrite.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry.Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.comFor more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


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