Tuesday, September 09, 2008

John Tierney: A Martian.

I used to write about John Tierney's sexism a lot but then the New York Times removed him from the political stable and put him in the science stable and I read him less often, partly because I pretended that he would somehow have less scope for sexism there. Yes, I knew better. After all, he specializes in pseudoscience findings which are all about how women are inherently the way he would like them to be. Or something like that.

Anyway, he has written a piece about sex differences which starts like this:

When men and women take personality tests, some of the old Mars-Venus stereotypes keep reappearing. On average, women are more cooperative, nurturing, cautious and emotionally responsive. Men tend to be more competitive, assertive, reckless and emotionally flat. Clear differences appear in early childhood and never disappear.

What's not clear is the origin of these differences. Evolutionary psychologists contend that these are innate traits inherited from ancient hunters and gatherers. Another school of psychologists asserts that both sexes' personalities have been shaped by traditional social roles, and that personality differences will shrink as women spend less time nurturing children and more time in jobs outside the home.

To test these hypotheses, a series of research teams have repeatedly analyzed personality tests taken by men and women in more than 60 countries around the world. For evolutionary psychologists, the bad news is that the size of the gender gap in personality varies among cultures. For social-role psychologists, the bad news is that the variation is going in the wrong direction. It looks as if personality differences between men and women are smaller in traditional cultures like India's or Zimbabwe's than in the Netherlands or the United States. A husband and a stay-at-home wife in a patriarchal Botswanan clan seem to be more alike than a working couple in Denmark or France. The more Venus and Mars have equal rights and similar jobs, the more their personalities seem to diverge.

These findings are so counterintuitive that some researchers have argued they must be because of cross-cultural problems with the personality tests. But after crunching new data from 40,000 men and women on six continents, David P. Schmitt and his colleagues conclude that the trends are real. Dr. Schmitt, a psychologist at Bradley University in Illinois and the director of the International Sexuality Description Project, suggests that as wealthy modern societies level external barriers between women and men, some ancient internal differences are being revived.

So a science piece can start with talking about the Men-Are-From-Mars idea, as if it was something serious science had produced and not a part of general pseudo-psychological pop literature? That's a great way to increase my trust in what's to come next.

Do you know how I think John Tierney writes his articles? I think that he begins with the conclusions he wishes to reach, the ones about inherent sex differences acquired in some mystical and unknown prehistoric era. Then he goes and digs in research files until he finds pieces which support his beliefs. Then he upends the whole thing and pretends that he first read the science pieces and then came up with his findings. Such innocence, such purity! Such honesty!

And why would I think so? Because his findings are always biased in one direction. David Brooks does something similar in his opinion pieces, or that's how they strike me.

The job of responding to such pieces is difficult, because ideally the responder should know the all of the relevant field. But people who actually work in those fields tend not to get rewarded (with tenure or pay raises in academia) for responding to biased popularizations of science or pseudo-science. Instead, some of the odd fields of research have created their own walled enclaves within which all people seem to have the same biases, and the rest of the scientist try to ignore what they are doing.

That leaves the discussion to few brave amateurs (cough) who mostly don't have enough time to be educated in all the research going on in all the different relevant fields.

All that prelude is to explain why I address Tierney's piece on this blog, and the reason is largely so that someone will address it. At the same time, I do not have the resources that someone who actually works in the field would have and, once again, I plead for the professionals to step in.

So here we go: Tierney's thesis is that the more gender-equal a society is the more men look like they are from Mars and the more women look like they are from Venus. Men are competitive, aggressive, emotionally flat, and women are cooperative, timid and emotionally curved I guess. Yet the reason for these differences is not our different planetary roots but our different roots in prehistory!

And that prehistory must have had a division of labor between men and women though we don't have any direct fossil evidence from it. And that division of labor must have meant that women gathered and men hunted though we don't know if that's actually the whole truth. And somehow gathering required cooperation and hunting did not though it's fairly easy to imagine how finding a really good spot for juicy roots would be something you'd keep hidden from the other gatherers and though it's also fairly easy to imagine how hunting for big game would actually require cooperation between the hunters.

In short, I fail to see how cooperation would have become the selected-for characteristic more often in women than in men, and I also fail to see how it wouldn't have benefited both sexes to be able to be both cooperative and competitive, depending on the situation. In any case, only a guy who keeps his distance from women altogether could assume that women are not intensely competitive when needed.

What about the research that Tierney uses to back up his conclusions? I need to read all of it and then I need to read alternative research on international comparisons and what that research finds and then I need to compare the methodologies of those studies and so on. See how rigged this game is?