Wednesday, March 15, 2017

A Gendered Approach to Science II

I've been meaning to write about Bryan Gaensler's presentation at York University for some time. I just found another video that provides an excellent counterpoint, namely, Sarah Ballard's contribution to Jackie Speier's sexual harassment panel. Here are the two videos, which I encourage you to watch in their entirety. But this post onlymainly deals with what is said in the first two and a half minutes of each video.

I present this as part II to my earlier "A Gendered Approach to Science" for two reasons. First, because I like a good pun. In the first post, I was talking about how we might "approach" the study of science as, say, philosophers; in this post, I will be talking about how two scientists "got into" their field, i.e., how they approach their own work.

Second, this post does actually develop the theme of the first one. Both presentations, and especially Ballard, make a point of emphasizing that men and women reason differently and are differently motivated to get into science. As always, it puzzles me how easily feminists can state this fact (which I think is very plausible) and then refuse to accept that two groups who reason differently and are differently motivated might be differently represented at the higher rungs of the career ladder. It's just such an obvious contradiction to me.

But the reason I wanted to write this post is to make an even simpler point. Gaensler begins by explaining why he loves saying he's an astronomer:

Ever since I was three years old I wanted to be an astronomer. I never had any plan B; it’s the only thing I ever wanted to do. It's an incredible privilege and a gift to be able to do what I always wanted. [...] And I always look back thinking there was never any doubt that I was going to be an astronomer because I wanted it so badly.

He's setting up a point, of course, (he's going "check" that "privilege") but we'll get to that in a moment. Listen to Ballard's story of how she realized that she was going to be an astronomer. Here's how she put it to Kishore Hari on Inquiring Minds about how she got into astronomy:

Hari: So you were basically interested in astronomy straight away when you came to college?
Ballard: I wasn’t … I started out in college thinking I was going to be a peace and conflict major, a gender studies major. And in fact I had taken some classes to that effect and I thought maybe I’d be a social worker. And I took an astronomy course because of what I thought of at the time as a useless physical science breadth requirement. … I felt the call of astronomy at 18.

I'm going to presume that Gaensler thinks that Ballard is precisely the sort of person that needs some extra help in a sexist world. Indeed, he has a handy graphic to make the point for him.

Ballard (being a woman) is "shorter" (in a man's world) than Gaensler (a man) and should therefore get an extra box or two to stand on. The peculiar thing is that he completely discounts the fifteen years he himself presumably spent climbing up on "the shoulders of giants" to see further into the depths of space than his school friends did. By the time he got to college, he probably already knew what a goddam "magnetar" is! Ballard by contrast, as she herself explains, heard "the call" of astronomy as a freshman by looking at a picture of space and being struck by its "magnificence".

Here's the saddening thing Gaensler finds himself saying about what is almost literally his lifelong passion for astronomy:

It was only much later that I realized that there were probably lots of other people like me who were just as focused and determined and driven to be astronomers, for whom for reasons beyond their control things didn’t work out. That was a real light bulb for me, when I realized that it wasn’t my force of will or my desire but my privilege and my fortune that allowed me to get where I am.

Actually, he's helping young women who thought they were going to be social workers when they got to college, and had to be talked in to doing science by an academic advisor, and plan not actually to do a lot of core science but "build a culture" (4:15) for younger versions of themselves (5:40), outmanoeuvre people like himself who had been obsessed with the universe since the age of three and never, for that reason, had a "Plan B"!

"No, Bryan," I want to say, "there weren't lots of people like you. That sort of passion is rare and when you have it it does actually help overcome adversity and beat out those who don't have it." If, of course, you don't let those less passionate people explain their own failures by way of the "inappropriate" affections of their professors and prop them up with all sorts of special programs. What Gaensler is basically saying to young, white men who devote their entire lives to astronomy from an early age is that they shouldn't be proud of their accomplishments. After all, perhaps even their interest in science from that early age was "engendered"!


Anonymous said...

There is nothing that a reformer hates more than the scientist who's "too obsessed" with science and has been for some time.

Jonathan said...

Thomas said...

Thanks, Jonathan. Maybe satire is the only way through this.

Jonathan said...

I don't think men and women reason differently and differ in their reasons for going into science.

I think that people reason differently and differ in their reason for going into science. One of the differential factors in their various differences might be gender, but wouldn't that be an empirical question? We cannot think that all male astronomers are dedicated to the cause from an early age, and that all females happen into the major later on. That's a sample size of one for each gender.

Thomas said...

I agree Jonathan. It's another way of putting the point. Since people are so different as individuals, I don't understand where the idea that these differences should be equally distributed across race and gender comes from. Just the idea is puzzling. The steadfast conviction that we often see on this point is mind-boggling.

And then I just get dizzy when the people who seem to be unshakable in this conviction matter-of-factly say that men pursue science because they think they can make a contribution and women do so because they've been encouraged by someone else.

My point is that probably most successful scientists, whether male or female, were interested in their field from an early age. (The same goes for musicians and athletes for perhaps more obvious reasons.) In fact, feminists often suggest that women are not "encouraged" to do science enough as young girls, or too often discouraged. This is an interesting point here, since if cultivating an interest (and honing a skill) from an early age makes a difference, then this would also explain the lack of women at the top rungs of science.

The solution, of course, is to have a society where individuals can pursue their interests and discover their talents regardless of race and gender. There can be legitimate disagreements about the degree to which this has been achieved. But I don't think it's wise to correct for the "unfair advantage" that Gaensler's fifteen-year "head start" would give him over someone like Ballard by the time they get to college. At that point, you don't want to "check privilege"; you want to leverage talent. Or we get the nutty world Vonnegut describes.

Jonathan said...

Excellence in a lot of endeavors comes from micro pockets of culture. People from musical families have a much better chance of being great musicians, because it might take more than one generation for something like that to develop. Race car drivers probably have to come from families where that is something accessible and imaginable. Uneven distribution of this kind of thing is probably a good thing in many cases. We shouldn't have to start again with every generation to create a culture within a family or small community. On the other hand there are things for which we really want to approach a state of more equal opportunity: not in the micros cultures of athleticism or music, but in broader fields like medicine. It is an advantage to have a physician as parent, but it should be open to many others as well.

Thomas said...

I guess it's all about what we mean by "should be open". In principle, first violin of a given orchestra is open to anyone who auditions, as is quarterback for the Rams. A spot even in a middling med school is really no different. If you want be a doctor you just have to go to the best school that will take you (and you can afford).

If you don't have the requisite knowledge, then you have to find a place that will teach you what you need.

I think I'm just basically against affirmative action. Even where an injustice is the cause of a lost opportunity to develop a talent, there is no justice in giving more advanced opportunities to develop further to people who aren't the best qualified applicant.