Thursday, April 27, 2017

Science Discovers that Males and Females Differ in Lots of Ways

The Women in Astronomy blog draws our attention to a recent study of pigeons. I didn't know that "scientists tend to assume that—unless they are looking specifically at reproduction or sexual behavior—male and female animals are alike". It seems like a strange thing to assume. I also didn't know that that's the reason a lot of experimental work (like drug testing) use mainly males. I did know that they do this, but I thought it was because male bodies are less complicated than female bodies. (The easiest example is that women menstruate once a month during a randomized control trial of aspirin, for example.) That is, I thought males were chosen out of convenience, precisely because they differ from females, not because they were presumably similar in every way not related to reproduction. (There are still lots of political issues in that, of course, but it does not express an assumption of similarity.)

That said, the real puzzle here is how this study helps fight "sexism in science".

The work is part of an attempt to make science more gender-inclusive and aware of physiological and other differences between the sexes. [...] Like all other vertebrates, the gonads (testes and ovaries) are influenced by hormones produced by the pituitary gland, which itself is controlled by hormones from the hypothalamus, a structure in the brain. [...] "There are incredible differences in gene expression, especially in the pituitary," [one of the researchers] said. The results show that there are far more sex-based differences in the pituitary than previously thought, she said.

How does one square this result (which does not, like I say, surprise me) with the constant indignation over the gender disparity in some of the natural sciences? If there are "incredible differences" in "a structure of the brain" in males and females, why are we surprised that there might turn out to be a difference in the distribution of ability and desire to do, say, physics, in the male and female population? I'll just leave that as a question. I'm happy to have someone tell me what I'm getting wrong here.


Jonathan said...

There are several things going on here. One is that the biological rules that affect all other animals are not applicable to humans, since everything human is cultural by definition. So someone who would have no problems distinguishing a male rate from a female unproblematically balks at making the same distinction for humans.

(Of course we also have to take into account tendentious interpretations of biology on both sides. Much of evolutionary biology, for example, is pure crap.)

Secondly, when the biological difference favors females, in some way, then all of a sudden the taboo against biology disappears. Those quoting the study seems confused in any case. If the null hypothesis is that sex differences among the birds are limited to sexual functioning, then the discovery of other differences is actually quite fascinating.

Jonathan said...


Anonymous said...

A lot of biologists and medical doctors now believe that it was a mistake to do so much animal and clinical research with primarily male subjects. There might still be a good argument for doing very early-stage human subjects research primarily with males, if there's a risk that the drug or other intervention might lead to birth defects (some drugs can cause birth defects years later, even if only taken when the woman is not pregnant) but otherwise sex differences are now considered an important biological variable. (Of course, gendered differences in life experience can also be relevant to human health; it isn't solely about differences of genetic origin.) Primarily-male pools of subjects now require justification in NIH grant proposals, and appropriately so.

But all of this implies that sex differences are indeed salient in humans. And that's only acceptable if the putative differences can be spun as favorable to females. A putative sex difference in cognition can be reported as "Studies increasingly show that women are naturally better at [circle one or more: seeing the big picture, focusing on details, working in teams, efficiently conducting solo projects on self-directed timelines, visual tasks, verbal tasks, decoding interpersonal issues, separating interpersonal issues from the task at hand]." A putative sex difference can also be spun as "Women naturally prefer [insert anything here] so it would be advantageous to [circle one or more: academic science, the tech industry, the private sector, the public sector] to organize more tasks in that way so as to take advantage of the unique skills that women bring."

What cannot be reported is "Many women naturally prefer [insert anything here], suggesting that the dearth of women in [anything else] may reflect freely-made choices."

Thomas said...

@Jonathan: I agree that the whole problem here is in the construction of the "null" or "prior". Variation is a normal thing. Even those who "celebrate difference" don't seem to get how normal (and actually accepted) it is. Everyone understands that people are different. The activists want this to be an epiphany.

@Anon: Yes, that's my sense of it too.