Thursday, December 15, 2011

Another blow to notions of testosterone and systemizing and gender and behaviour

The grand theory of autism, the "extreme male brain" theory of autism, which has been championed and popularized by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen and his team at the Autism Research Centre of the University of Cambridge, asserts that autism is characterized by relative gifts in a set of abilities and interests labelled as "systemizing", and relative disability in a set of abilities and interests labelled as "empathizing". This theory also asserts that males are, as a group, naturally more talented at systemizing and less naturally talented in empathizing than females, male psychology being something like a mid-point between the autistic and females. It is hard to find a place for female autistics within this theoretical model, so lets just say that within the world described by this model, they (we?) are complete freaks. The biological mechanism proposed as an explanation in this model is the action of testosterone on the developing brain of a foetus or infant.

This model has implications way beyond the search for a scientific explanation for autism - this theory also tells us that the behaviour of males and females should and does generally differ due to biological factors, and the logical consequence of taking this theory seriously must be a degree of caution about taking steps to counter gender differences in participation in various aspects of life, and a greater tolerance of what appears to be a gender stereotyped world in which men and women generally take on different sets of roles. Mathematics is categorized by Baron-Cohen and co-researchers as an area of human endeavour that requires talent in systemizing but makes virtually no demands on empathizing. It has been cited as an ideal career or study choice for intelligent autistics for this reason, and the logical extension of this thinking is that males should have a greater natural talent for maths than females. This idea is also congruent with popular beliefs. A controversy broke out this year over the marketing of a T-shirt with the slogan "I'm too pretty to do math". Presumbly the idiots who are selling this garment believe the idea has enough currency to find some kind of market for this product. Baron-Cohen's team take the supposed similarity between being a mathematician and being autistic so far that they are doing a whole genome study of mathematicians versus non-mathematicians, mirroring the type of genetic research this is typically done studying the genes of autistics. They hope to compare the genes of mathematicians and people diagnosed with Asperger syndrome to see if there are similarites or differences.

Baron-Cohen's model of maths and testosterone relies on a number of assertions to be found to be true in the world of real people and real achievements. If it is found that there are no significant differences between the genes of mathematicians and a comparable non-mathematician control group, or that there are no unique genetic similarities between the mathematical and the autistic, or that there is no evidence of innate difference between mathematical talent between males and females, then the wings will fall off of this model and it shouldn't fly anywhere. I've been busy this year exploring the absurdity and failure of many of the ideas that have been promoted by Baron-Cohen, and here's another one. A newly published study of participation and achievement in mathematics of boys and girls in a large and varied range of countries has found that quite contrary to the idea that it is a waste of time encouraging girls to achieve in maths due to an innate feminine lack of systemizing potential, it is actually true that the performance of both boys and girls in maths increases with greater gender equity, and my reading of the study's findings is that in many counties, in single and in mixed-sex schools, girls are actually out-performing boys anyway. The idea that testosterone acting on the brain bestows an additional quantity of units of some mysterious source of mathematical or systemizing talent looks like just one more garbage idea to come out of Cambridge. It's time to put out the rubbish, because the trash is really on the nose.

Some quotes from the research paper by Kane and Mertz:

"In summary, we conclude that gender equity and other sociocultural factors, not national income, school type, or religion per se, are the primary determinants of mathematics performance at all levels for both boys and girls."

"Eliminating gender discrimination in pay and employment opportunities could be part of a win-win formula for producing an adequate supply of future workers with high-level competence in mathematics. Wealthy countries that fail to provide gender equity in employment are at risk of producing too few citizens of either gender with the skills necessary to compete successfully in a knowledge-based economy driven by science and technology."

Wealthy countries that fail to provide gender equity? I think they are talking about you, Australia!


Debunking Myths about Gender and Mathematics Performance.
Jonathan M. Kane and Janet E. Mertz
Notices of the AMS.
January 2012 Volume 59, Number 1 p.10-21.

Major new study examines explanations for math 'gender gap'

There really is no difference between men and women’s math abilities.
Alasdair Wilkins
Dec 12, 2011

Whole Genome Study of Mathematical Ability
Autism Research Centre

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