Sunday, August 01, 2010

And Now For Something A Little Bit Different [Anthony McCarthy]

Since early in this blogging gig I've had fun poking holes in and fun at various items in the newspaper announcing various findings in the social sciences, most often using Kevin Lewis' column in the Ideas section of the Sunday Boston Globe as a jumping off point. Today he has something that I'm going to take seriously. Here it is:

The reckless toddler gender gap
In the nature vs. nurture debate, you can add another notch to the nurture side. Researchers asked parents of toddlers to react to imaginary scenarios of their child engaging in reckless behavior. Although there wasn’t much difference in how mothers and fathers reacted, there was a difference based on the sex of the child. With boys, parents reacted with anger and discipline, but with girls, the reaction was generally disappointment and a concern for safety. Underlying these differences was a belief that boys are inherently predisposed to reckless behavior, while girls can learn to follow rules, suggesting that parents are imposing gender norms from a very young age.

Morrongiello, B. et al., “Understanding Gender Differences in Children’s Risk Taking and Injury: A Comparison of Mothers’ and Fathers’ Reactions to Sons and Daughters Misbehaving in Ways that Lead to Injury,” Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology (July-August 2010).

One of the reasons I'm going to take this seriously is because I believe the last sentence is entirely true, we are subjected to the socially constructed gender expectations of our parents and other adults from almost as soon as they know which kind of genitalia we had at birth. While that kind of gender conditioning varies in its content and strength from person to person, it is certainly widespread enough to constitute a major factor in the individual lives of people and in the societies in which they live. It has determined our laws and the application of those, as well as the whole gamut of rules and codes of conduct. And those social expectations aren't universal or set in stone. They can be recognized and changed, through conscious decision and through unconscious rebellion against the tyranny of gender role assignments. Laws and rules change in time. What has feminism, and, indeed, the entire history of civil rights struggle, been except a refusal to remain restricted and downtrodden by social and legal role assignments.

But, presumably, we are supposed to take this conclusion seriously, that babies are very early subjected to these role models and patterns of thinking by the people who have the greatest effect in forming their thinking. Presumably social scientists are supposed to take it seriously. My question is why they don't. If this conclusion is valid, and I believe it is, then it overturns every assumption of all "hard wired", genetically determined, finding in the social sciences. You can't look at behavior as if the people behaving are unconditioned in exactly this way. You certainly can't ignore the learned expectations, most of them quite unconsidered and automatic, when they report on their mental states or their imagined reactions, as this study depends on. Though I've extremely skeptical that they exist, the possible methods of the social sciences would be unable to tease out any "genetically based gender differences" from the socialization of study subjects. Taken seriously, this study would render huge parts of recent social, behavioral and cognitive science orthodoxy useless.

I have a relative who can't get through the morning without checking a half dozen weather reports. One snowy morning as they fretted over the rather varied prophesies of the TV and radio weathermen, I asked who they believed when those gave different predictions. There wasn't an answer. I seem to recall hearing somewhere that the greatest accuracy of weather prediction outside of 48 hours was something like 11%. Given the range of vectors and possibilities, I doubt the social sciences do that well and in any given individual, their best guesses are likely to be entirely wrong.