Atlas Shrugged: The Mocking

Friday, September 4, 2015

A Question of Failure

It must be horrible to be conservative. Megan McArdle:
"Why can't a woman be more like a man?" asks Henry Higgins in "My Fair Lady." Women might point out that, since too many men seem to trust a mysterious toilet paper fairy to change out the forlorn tube of cardboard, it makes more sense to ask: "Why can't a man be more like a woman?"
But regardless of how we ask it, the question is a good one: Why can't members of the sexes be more alike? Why do so many irritating differences persist? Feminists' answer has been: cultural and structural sexism. Societies train women to take second fiddle to men in work and relationships -- and then punish them for trying to break out of their assigned roles. No, say traditional conservatives: Women and men are different, and cultures reflect those differences.
Traditional conservatives also say that black people are inferior to white people. That women are inferior to men. That non-Christians are violent and Christians are peaceful. Conservatives say a lot of stupid things based on their neediness and fearfulness, which is a direct result of the abusive nature of conservative child rearing.
The conservatives may now be getting some support from a surprising source: transgender men.
It's not news that women's and men's brains aren't exactly the same. But why they aren't the same is a matter of some dispute. We know that training can actually change the physical structure of your brain. London cab drivers famously have more gray matter in the area associated with spatial recognition, perhaps developed through their work navigating the metropolis. In the same way, women's brains might be different from men's because they have been trained to be different, in ways that show up in the distribution of their brain cells over time.
There are differences between male and female biology. Some might be an advantage, some a disadvantage, but biology is not destiny and one certainly cannot conclude that men are smarter than women from the evidence McArdle links to. She leaps to connect intelligence and success to brain differences because she is a conservative but if she had read the study she might have thought--well, we will never know, will we?

Conservatives can take a fact and completely misinterpret it due to their need to conform to conservative beliefs. If women's brains have to be trained to become different they are not different. If they are different it does not necessarily follow that one is better than the other or that any difference makes a substantial difference in intelligence. Authoritarian, hierarchal societies require the separation of people into superiority and inferiority so they may maintain their position of power over others.
A small but very interesting study was recently done on transitioning female-to-male transgender subjects, who receive high doses of testosterone. After just four weeks, images of their brains recorded significant changes.

Obviously, I do not want to overinterpret the results of one study with a small number of subjects. But since I'm sure we'll see more studies like this in the future, with a range of results, I think it's worth asking some uncomfortable questions this raises: What if some of the disparity between men and women -- for instance, in the workforce -- never goes away? What if the gaps are, at some level, indelible because men's brains are simply better wired for success in that environment?

Ahhhhhh. Suddenly WTF? becomes perfectly clear.

McArdle failed at her chosen field. She flamed out. She waved bye-bye to money and power and a potential hedge fund manager spouse, apartment in Manhattan, beach "cottage" at Martha's Vineyard, and vacation maison in Paris. That elite, exclusive life that she wanted so dearly and never achieved and can only envy from afar. No amount of Thermomixes or luxury taxis on call at the push of an app will ever compensate for a husband who graduated from the University of North Florida or the knowledge that the only thing keeping her from humiliating anonymity is the largess of Koch-created wingnut welfare distributors.
This study doesn't prove anything like this. Such a small study doesn't prove anything. And when we have enough data to draw big conclusions, we might conclude that the differences that actually exist don't matter for career success. Or that women have the biological advantage. On the other hand, the scientific process might prove the traditional conservatives were right. Ish.
Since the scientific process never proves conservatives are right that is highly doubtful. After all, science proved that conservatives are low-information authoritarians and McAdle rejects that idea out of hand. Which is why McArdle also has cautioned us not to trust scientific studies, a fact that she must acknowledged here because some unkind and all-too-present people will be certain to point it out. Repeatedly.
When evaluating scientific findings, I always remind myself: "The universe is not here to please you" and "nature doesn't care about fair." It can be true that women are less likely to have astounding math or engineering abilities, even though that's unfair as heck, and I don't like it. In the world of science, things do not become more true just because we'd be better off if they were.
This is why it is horrible to be a conservative. Anything that interferes with conservative shibboliths must be ignored. McArdle probably has never heard of Ada Lovelace, Rosalind Franklin, Maria Gaetana Agnesi, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Marie-Sophie Germain, Amalie Emmy Noether, Dame Mary Lucy Cartwright, Esther Lederberg, Chien-Shiung Wu, Lise Meitner, Julia Hall Bowman Robinson, Nettie Stevens,  Shafi Goldwasser. And these problems are not in the distant past.

Don't forget that McArdle also thinks it quite possible that Black people are genetically inferior to White people. Not that she says they are--dear me, no. Just that they might be stupider and Charles Murray might be right. Who knows?
And when it comes to gender, it's clear that nature is completely uninterested in fairness. All nature cares about is that you a) survive and b) reproduce.  Justice is a human value, not a natural condition. Male orb spiders are more likely than not to end their romantic interlude as dinner for their mate. This is rather harder on the spiders than anything most female humans have to endure, but it seems to make for healthier kids, so the males have to take one for the team. What if nature, with its infinite disregard for our wishes, simply declined to deliver the raw talent for women to ever gain equal representation at the top of many fields?
That would be balm to a wounded soul, wouldn't it? It's not that McArdle isn't terribly bright despite her extremely expensive education. It's not that she couldn't make it in the world she wanted to swan around in. She didn't fail to measure up. It's just that she's female and women might--not that she's saying it's so but just might-not be able to become rich and powerful and be interviewed on CNBC instead of having to be a tiny face in a tiny box with only 30 seconds of time on the Larry Kudlow show.

But even though McArdle wasn't to blame for her personal failures it doesn't mean that she is not super smart and rilly elite.

Well, it seems worth pointing out the things this wouldn't prove:
  1. It wouldn't prove that women belong back in the kitchen. Women are already in the workforce in large numbers, doing all kinds of jobs. Obviously, women can do those jobs. So we know that the old way of doing things was, in fact, holding a lot of women back from doing things they'd be good at.
  2. It wouldn't prove that sexism is no longer an issue. Male and female brains can be systematically different, and women can still be unfairly discriminated against in the workforce. One thesis does not disprove the other.
  3. It wouldn't prove that we can stand pat even if we've realized that we've reached a place where female and male brain differences are accounting for most of the difference in workplace outcome. If male brains do a better job at certain things -- say, competition or negotiating -- then the answer might be "we need to restructure the economy so that it better rewards female talents." Science can tell you what is. It cannot tell you what ought to be. And after all, gents, we are the majority. Fair is fair.
  4. It wouldn't prove that any individual woman is unsuited for a job. Averages are just averages. There are women who are great at math, and men who are great at nursing, just to name two historically gendered activities. Even if group averages are different, you can't infer anything about individual ability by looking at their group memberships.
What this would do is greatly complicate the attempt to infer sexism by looking at differences in outcomes. Unfortunately, outcomes are the best data we have. It's pretty easy to count how many women are in the C-suite. It's nearly impossible to monitor the thousands of daily internal decisions that add up to a discriminatory barrier, or don't.
Since everything is just too, too hard we will have to go by the sexist standards. It's only fair.
So if we find out that women's brains really are different from men's, in ways that are driven not by the environment in which they are raised but the hormones suffusing their brain, we're going to need to start by rethinking the ways that we identify sexism in the first place -- and then start thinking about what sort of remedies might be appropriate. This is going to be an even longer, messier negotiation than the one we're having now.
Especially if science tells us that women are just better at understanding complicated stuff like science. Men, the benighted darlings, will just have to trust us.
Hee hee! Isn't the idea of women being smarter than men funny! Like a monkey appearing to read a book!

And isn't it sad that we must divide the sexes into inferior and superior. But what else can we do when sexism is too hard to figure out?


Susan of Texas said...

Just like her pies--she can't make piecrust so nobody can make piecrust.

rjs said...

Mark Perry at the American Enterprise Institute read that article and found the best sentence he read today....