Friday, January 28, 2011


Cordelia Fine's fantastic analysis of "neurosexism" and exposé of the sloppy reasoning that feeds misconceptions about gendered brain differences to the popular press is reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement by Carol Tavris.

This is a good book to use in class--not just a class on feminist theory, but also in a philosophy of science class that examines the structure of evidential claims and the ways that values can influence scientific research and the communication of science.

From the review:
Fine’s romp through the fields of neurosexism is sandwiched between two other sections; in the first, she explores the unsexy, low-tech, but primary causes of gender differences in achievement: the persistence of discrimination, subtle and blatant, that convey the message to women – “You don’t belong here”, and the institutional rules, explicit and implicit, that impede advancement – or make it possible; after all, the international rise of women in law, medicine, science, bartending and the military did not occur because their brains became less lateralized. The final section examines the socialization of children and the phenomenon that draws so many parents to the notion that sex differences are innate: the sex-stereotyped play choices and behaviours of their toddlers. Parents aren’t wrong in what they observe. They are wrong only in assuming that their child’s preferences at the age of three, four or five has anything at all to do with what that child will grow up to become.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Argument from Partial Understanding

The argument from ignorance is a fallacy which runs like this:
  1. We have not proven beyond all doubt that X is true.
  2. Therefore, X is probably not true.
Its close cousin is the argument from incredulity:
  1. I would hardly be able to believe it if X were true.
  2. Therefore X is not true.
It also takes this form, which I call the egoistic form of the argument from ignorance:
  1. If X were true, then I would know it were true (or I would understand claim X).
  2. I don't know for a fact that X is true (or I don't understand claim X).
  3. Therefore X is not true.
I just saw a version of this argument applied to the question of scientific realism, call it an anti-realist argument from the position of egoistic partial understanding:
  1. Realists believe in the literal truth of scientific statements about both observable and non-observable (or theoretical) entities, while anti-realists grant this level of belief only for statements about observable entities.
  2. Bridges are observable, concrete is observable, and cracks in concrete are observable; molecules and molecular bonds are not so observable.
  3. I'm an engineer, and I understand bridges, concrete, and stress fractures; I never really understood what was going on in my organic chemistry class.
  4. Therefore engineers like me should be anti-realists.
What the student in question thought was really mind-blowing about this argument was that until he came up with it, he thought he was a realist. But then he realized that was only a case of naive realism, and that engineers like himself can treat most scientific claims as if they're true, whether or not they're really true, and that this is good enough for their purposes.

The real absurdity is that bad reasoning or not, there's validity to this explanation of what engineers' belief in science requires!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Johnny Can't Write

When I complain that my students can't write, what I usually mean is that they can't form coherent arguments, or that their writing style is pedestrian, or even that the sentences are ungrammatical. But today I have something more shocking to report.

I've had a student ask if I could develop an alternative test-taking arrangement for him, not because he has a formal academic accommodation (he doesn't), but because he never learned handwriting skills. He can't write in cursive. And after seeing a sample of some notes he took, I believe that he can't print either. Some letters were small case and some were capitals, with no rhyme or reason. I would not be able to read an essay test written in this handwriting.

The student's explanation was that he went to a Montessori school through 6th grade, and that this school just didn't teach handwriting. He said he had a really hard time in 7th grade, and tried to learn to (hand)write, but by then most of the students' work was in typed form anyway. When I started looking around for more information, I found that the problem is not isolated and doesn't seem to be just in Montessori schools. It's widespread. From a Cincinnati newspaper:

Cursive writing is "not addressed as a skill anywhere in Kentucky's core content, and there are so many other things that are," said Terry Price, director of elementary education for Bullitt County Public Schools. "Students need to be able to sign their name and be able to read it, but I think we'll get to a point in the future where it's not necessary at all."

For now, however, most educators are still teaching cursive writing, said Vanderbilt University professor Steve Graham, who conducted a study on the subject in 2008. He and other researchers surveyed about 170 first-, second- and third-grade teachers across the nation and found that 90 percent taught handwriting.

The time spent on those lessons averaged about 60 minutes a week, but some spend as little as 10 minutes a week on it, and the majority of teachers said they didn't have any real training in how to teach penmanship, Graham said.

Others call cursive writing skills "quaint" and tell stories of 7th graders unable even to read cursive handwriting! I'm shocked to learn that 10% of primary school teachers are not teaching handwriting, and that some spend only 10 minutes a week on it.

I made some calls around campus to see about whether this student could write his exam with a keyboard and one of the people I talked to proctors SATs at our testing center. SATs are now entirely electronic, except there is a one-sentence statement that students must copy, swearing to their identity and honesty. She says that handwritten statement is the hardest part of the exam for some students, that it can take them up to 20 minutes to copy, and that they absolutely cannot write it in cursive.

Do (or should) teachers deduct points for bad handwriting? I tell my students that if I can't read their ideas, I can't give credit for them.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Academic Discrimination and Pregnancy

Dr. Isis has the details. UC-Davis is not looking good on this one. At least the chancellor has responded appropriately.

The only bright side I can think of is that it would be unimaginable if an explicit and supportive maternity policy for students didn't come out of the situation--eventually.

The apparent issue is that people lose their compass directions when it comes to making decisions about pregnant women.

Climate Change and Disease

The American public's concern about climate change continues to decrease even as the evidence supporting the urgency and potentially harmful implications of the problem grows. Some studies have argued that this disconnect has as much to do with psychological responses and defense mechanisms as it does with serious reflection.

For instance, the issues are complex, so it is possible to focus on problems which we as individuals can distance ourselves from. Though I may feel it's too bad that some coastlines will shrink, I live a thousand feet above sea-level...

Among my own students, I've noticed a higher degree of worry about the possibility that climate change could spur the movement and introduction of diseases to humans than about other implications of climate change. But this worry is countered by evaluating those as being too indirect and lacking in examples.

A recent report will perhaps fill that gap. The New York Times has reported on a discovered link between climate change and the spread of hantavirus, a disease that can be fatal to humans.

From that article:
The spread of hantavirus among mice in the wake of the aspen die-offs should already be considered an “unintended consequence of climate change,” Dr. Lehmer said. She noted that other studies have shown an increase in human hantavirus infections in Germany during years of above-average warmth.
“The bottom line is that climate change is tending to introduce diseases where they haven’t been before, because it’s changing the entire dynamics of plant and animal ecosytems,” she said.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Paradigm Shiftyness

Yay, today my philosophy of science course discussed paradigm shifts. So fun.

After class a student asked me whether the news of the discovery of a 13th zodiac sign counts as a paradigm shift.

Me: Huh? A 13th zodiac sign?

Student: Oh yes, it was the Babylonians who discovered the zodiac, but the north star has shifted since Babylonian times. So now the line that is where the zodiac is includes an additional constellation that people didn't realize was actually in the zodiac line before this.

Me: Huh? Do you mean declination? You know the axis of rotation of the earth wobbles...

Student: Oh yes, that's it, and this is so freaking me out. And my mom is freaked out, too, because she says she's been a Cancer her whole life but she was mistaken and didn't even know it!

Me: And you think this is a scientific paradigm shift?

Student: It has to be! And we're living through it! It changes our whole outlook, you know? On life and stuff?

Me: And it's scientific?

Student: Totally. And I just don't know what to think about my sign and my personality now. I mean, who am I really?

Me: So what sort of scientist made this discovery? A historian? An archaeologist?

Student: This is totally huge. It was all over facebook.

Me: Huh?

I'm trying to figure out if I flubbed this one. Was there any better response than saying "Huh?" over and over. I tend to think not.

I found this on the ABC news website:
An astrological controversy erupted online Thursday after a newspaper article erroneously suggested that the dates that determine the Zodiac signs had shifted by about a month, throwing millions of believers into self-doubt and panic.
"Erroneously?" How can a NEWS site make a claim one way or the other about an astrological claim being right OR wrong? Hello? There is no truth value to claims that have no referent?

And I just don't know what to say about this being "all over" facebook. My facebook newsfeed includes these items: Quebecois winter humor, a recipe for tortilla soup with plenty of friendly commentary on tasty variations, pictures of kids, pictures of ski tracks in the snow, pictures of kids in the snow, a feminist rant (Dear Pandora, I don't appreciate the ad, followed by the Plan B Pill ad, followed by an ad with a giant cupcake...I don't like what your trying to say. Go screw yourself Pandora), a recommendation for independent theater, lots of fine art photography, and more than one person commenting on today's XKCD on string theory.

So as an antidote to frustrating thoughts about astrology and its "millions of believers," here you go:

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Teaching Philosophy, Early

Though a few weeks late, a memorial article for Matthew Lipman just appeared in the NYTimes. (I had coincidentally looked at his Wikipedia page on Dec. 27 and was startled and sad to see that he had the previous day. It also affected how I think about Wikipedia!)

Lipman believed that the habits of critical thinking could and should be taught early, and he started the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children.

While some people (including some of my philosopher friends) believe that even college freshman don't yet have the cognitive maturity to tackle philosophy, Lipman believed that children, who are engaged in figuring out the mechanics of a complex world, have the ability to learn tools of logic and ethical and critical thinking. His working group has harnessed the natural curiosity and questioning of children to stimulate philosophical patterns of thought, such as drawing distinctions and discovering implications. And if test scores show success, then this program has had success.

The NYTimes quotes from one of Lipman's books for children:

Harry, like his author, came to believe that the most important thing in the world is thinking.

“I know that lots of other things are also very important and wonderful, like electricity and magnetism and gravitation,” Harry said. “But although we understand them, they can’t understand us. So thinking must be something very special.”

Friday, January 14, 2011

Language Shapes--or Reflects--Reality?

More on language and gender.

What is the point of discussing how language interacts with sexism? Is the thought that by changing language, we can change sexist practices and behavior? Why not see things the other way around, that the language we use describes and emerges out of our social reality. From this latter perspective, the way to change social inequality is to treat people equally and to put into place policies, institutions, and practices that treat people equally. Once that is done, we will naturally use non-sexist language. (The degree to which language shapes thought has been controversial and difficult to test: more on that below.)

I suppose the thought is that words like 'policeman' describe the way our social reality is, for the most part, and once there are more policewomen, then we will use that word more often.

But why not use words like 'police officer' and 'firefighter,' which don't demand gendering of their subjects?

The argument in support of prioritizing language change starts with these two points:
1. If you are concerned about sex inequality--and other forms of inequality--then you will not want to participate in communicating in ways that reinforce the perception of inequality. It is not the case that everyone who is concerned to create conditions of equality has thought about the ways that our language does this, and so discussing it is often welcome.
2. If you are concerned about sex inequality, then changing your language is an easy thing to do. It does not require a large investment of time or thought, and adapting our language to contexts and commitments is something we do all the time.

Some of the arguments against prioritizing changing sexist to gender-neutral language ignore the above points. They claim either that:
1. it is ineffectual. But much of the labor that we put into supporting equality is ineffective on the small and immediate scale; the motivation for doing so is consistency between thought (a commitment to equality) and action.
2. even if it is effectual, the results are not as dramatic as achieving workplace equality, etc. But if language is used to devalue some people, then changing it may assist these other goals. In addition, it does not reduce in any way the effort to achieve other forms of equality.
3. it is coercive. But changing how I speak does not coerce others into changing how they speak.

That third point is telling. Surely part of the movement towards gender-neutral language does involve changing policies or norms (using peer pressure) to decrease how acceptable it is to use language that is deployed to exclude, ignore, or belittle others. For instance, professional organizations and journals have set standards for non-sexist language usage. Here's the APA's, from 1986.

Setting standards for non-sexist language use in professional contexts seems analogous to setting standards for non-sexist behavior. Surely, speaking is behavior, and it might be interpreted as even more important than behavior, which returns us to the earlier question, does the language we use (its categories, its affective content) shape the way we see the world, the way we think?

Research by linguistic psychologists suggests that it does. Lera Boroditsky asks:
Does treating chairs as masculine and beds as feminine in the grammar make Russian speakers think of chairs as being more like men and beds as more like women in some way? It turns out that it does.
I have described how languages shape the way we think about space, time, colors, and objects. Other studies have found effects of language on how people construe events, reason about causality, keep track of number, understand material substance, perceive and experience emotion, reason about other people's minds, choose to take risks, and even in the way they choose professions and spouses. Taken together, these results show that linguistic processes are pervasive in most fundamental domains of thought, unconsciously shaping us from the nuts and bolts of cognition and perception to our loftiest abstract notions and major life decisions.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

All men are created equal

Another thought on language and gender.

Sentences such as "all men are created equal" are ambiguous. Does the word "men" refer to men, or does it refer to men and women? Usage today is mixed, with most people saying "people" when they want to refer to men and women, and some people using "men" to refer to all members of humanity.

But when this phrase was written in the Declaration of Independence in 1776, to announce the value of democratic government and speak against the divine right of kings, it did refer to men specifically, and in particular to white, property-holding men. For this reason, Elizabeth Cady Stanton referred to but modified the phrase in her 1848 Declaration of Sentiments to say that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal."

Some students in my feminist theory class say they see no harm in referring to humanity as men. One argument given in favor of this practice is that everyone already knows that 'men' in this context means 'everyone.'

However, the question of whether 'men' really means 'men and women' (or even 'white men and black men') becomes politically relevant in the context of originary interpretations of the Constitution. Originalists believe that the Constitution grants only those rights which were actually intended by the people who wrote it or who approved its later amendments.

At times, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia appears to be a strict originalist. For instance in an interview he recently denied that the 14th amendment can be used to protect the rights of women (in spite of decades of Supreme Court precedent). While saying that it could be used to deny them those rights.

From what I can tell in this interview, he does not deny that women can be given civil rights. But any rights that women have (other than the right to vote), would have their origin in legislation. Unlike men's rights, they are not constitutional rights.

Here's part of what Justice Scalia has said:

Certainly the Constitution does not require discrimination on the basis of sex. The only issue is whether it prohibits it. It doesn't.

More here:

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Gender embedded in language

My feminist theory course talked about language today, and one of our exercises was to list some ways that gender is embedded in common expressions and ways that language is constrained by the gender of the user or the gender of the referent.

For instance, there are many more negative words referring to women's genitalia than to men's, and those words themselves can often be applied to a person to indicate that they are worthless, weak, cheap, or cowardly. Women and objects are beautiful, but most men don't want to be called beautiful, even if they are. Only women are described as shrill, and if a man performs in a way that would get a woman called shrill, he is unlikely to
be judged negatively at all.

The linguist at Dinosaur Comics does a great job with this, as usual:

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

To Every Debate, Two Extremes

Forced abortion. This is not a policy I would have thought would get much traction in the US. Right? How would you expect to hear forced abortion described? As a human rights violation, no?

I'm teaching the subject of abortion debates in an upper-division feminist theory course right now. It's the second time I've taught about abortion debates at my current institution. Since it's the topic least likely to elicit rational discussion, I try to leave it off my agenda. But I'm using this great textbook which deals with the topic so nicely, I figured I'd give it a try.

The consensus which was voiced most clearly in the classroom was that--hold on to your hats--women should be legally forced to have abortions if the father of the fetus does not want to pay child support. One student argued for this idea and then, one by one, the other three males in the class jumped on board. Oh, to be fair, one student said that he wouldn't go so far as to require forced abortion, but men should be relieved of providing child support if the pregnant woman won't get an abortion when her partner asks her to. And another said that he's less in favor of forced abortion than he is in favor of the idea that abortion should be available to women only when their sex partner signs off on it. Which is to say that only men should be able to make decisions about women acquiring an abortion.

Out of about 25 women, only one spoke in defense of women's right to not have unwanted medical procedures forced on them.

Why did these students think that forced abortion is a position they could support in a feminist theory classroom, especially after reading a long and sensitive chapter in a feminist theory textbook? And where were the feminist voices? One student told me privately that the views expressed were so ignorant of what we had been discussing that it was impossible to know where to start. But I also worry that at this university, where women make up less than a third of the student body, students have become resigned to overt sexism.

An additional note: any ideas about whether I should return to this discussion in the next class meeting? It seems to me that a class occurrence this far from the basis for the rest of our discussion deserves more attention and can best be dealt with using humor. But, ummm, I don't quite know how to joke about serious proposals for forced abortions. Ideas?