High Tension

A couple of further thoughts on the Taboo question. There is a lot of tension in all this – because there are some rational, non-ostrich-like, non-fingers-in-ears, non-You Can’t Say That reasons for worry about, for instance, saying that a particular identifiable set of people may have, in however small a statistical sense, less of a given ability than another set or sets. One such reason is the self-fulfilling prophesy. The worry is that if you tell people – especially and all the more so if you tell them officially academically scientifically studies have shownically – that they are, or they belong to a group or subset of the population that is, statistically, however slightly and tail end effectly, innately less good at X, there is very often a strong tendency for the people in question to give up on X as a result. To relax their efforts, to decide it’s hopeless, to give themselves permission not to bang their heads against a wall.

A book on US education, The Learning Gap, by Harold Stevenson and James Stigler, discusses one aspect of this problem in chapter 5, Effort and Ability. They argue that Americans put more emphasis on innate ability while Chinese and Japanese people put more on persistent effort. ‘In sum, the relative importance people assign to factors beyond their control, like ability, compared to factors that they can control, like effort, can strongly influence the way they approach learning. Ability models subvert learning…’ I have a friend who teaches high school math, and she is apt to go off like a bomb when anyone says maybe girls and women find math more difficult than boys and men. She spends much of her working life trying to counter that idea in her girl students: she says they believe it, and the result is that they don’t try. I find that highly plausible, since that was my own attitude to math when I was in school – I decided very early that I hated it and was no good at it, so I never tried hard enough.

So you can see where such ideas can be disastrous. Group X is good at A. B, and C. I belong to group X: I’m good at A-C, less good at D-W. What follows is not only ‘I’ll do better at A-C, I might fail at D-W, A-C will be easier,’ and the like. There is also the even more insidious thought that ‘I won’t be an authentic X if I try to do D-W. Xs don’t do D-W, it’s not their scene, it’s a Y thing, a Z thing, not an X thing. I’m proud to be an X, I don’t want to imitate Ys or Zs – even or especially if Ys and Zs are above Xs in the social hierarchy. That’s all the more reason to be a loyal X, an authentic X. Ys and Zs are successful, rich, important, powerful, sure, but-therefore, they are wicked, heartless, selfish, materialistic, phony, money-mad, alienated, too clever by half. I will never desert my people – I will do X things.’

So…one can see why people would want everyone to just shut up about the possibility of a statistical tail end effect in women’s math ability, even if it is or may be true. But at the same time one can also see that that wanting everyone to shut up about something is generally incompatible with scholarship and inquiry. So there’s a tension. It makes my head hurt. Kind of the way algebra used to.

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