On ‘The Ravanayan’ and women traveling alone.

On ‘The Ravanayan’ and women traveling alone.

Most ancient stories, including several considered sacred by contemporary societies, are riddled with sex, violence, and gore.  In the Old Testament, Samson goes berserk and murders a thousand men with the jawbone of a donkey.  In the Iliad, Achilles goes berserk and drags a corpse across the battlefield, hoping to defile the body of his foe.  In the Edda, Thor goes berserk and starts smashing skulls with his hammer. 

In the Ramayana, an army of monkeys and an army of demons meet murderously on the battlefield.  From Robert Goldman, Sally Sutherland Goldman, and Barend van Nooten’s translation of the Ramayana:

In that terrible darkness they slaughtered one another in battle: the monkeys crying, “Are you a demon?” and the demons crying, “Are you a monkey?”

Kill!”  “Rend!”  “Come on!”  “What, running away?”  Such were the tumultuous cries that were heard in that darkness.

A tremendous din could be heard as they roared and raced about in that tumultuous battle, though nothing at all could be seen.

In their towering fury, monkeys killed monkeys, while demons slaughtered demons in the darkness.

And as the monkeys and demons killed friend and foe alike, they drenched the earth with blood, making it slick with mud.

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The weapons described in the Ramayana are so fantastical that some Hindu nationalists cite these passages as evidence that ancient Indians had access to advanced military technology, like atomic bombs.  Which, um, they didn’t.  These claims are equivalent to the Christian archaeologists who scour rocks for evidence of Yahweh’s genocidal flood in the Old Testament.

Ancient myths tend not to be literally true.

But, even to a generation raised on Mortal Kombat and action flicks, mythological battle scenes are pretty intense.  Especially in the Ramayana, what with those magical weapons, flying monkeys, and angry demons.  Luckily for us, Vijayendra Mohanty and Vivek Goel have collaborated to produce The Ravanayan, a gorgeous series of comic books depicting this story.

Divine arrows that explode on impact?  Yup.

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The Ramayana is an intricate, expansive myth.  Whenever I attempt to summarize it to someone, I begin tentatively – the story includes deep meditations on fate, and its chains of causality often seem involuted and intertwined.  One action causes another, but the second action also caused the first. 

For instance, Rama kills Ravana because Ravana kidnapped Rama’s spouse.  But also, Rama was born for the express purpose of killing Ravana.  Their collision was pre-ordained.

In some tellings, Ravana is a demon.  A monstrous figure who, like Lucifer, initiates an assault on the gods and must be stopped.  Because Ravana is immune to harm from deities, though, Vishnu must be incarnated as a human to slay him.  During Vishnu’s tenure as a human, other characters intentionally waste his time because they are waiting for Rama / Vishnu’s divinity to fade sufficiently for him to be able to fight Ravana.

In other tellings, Ravana is an enlightened figure.  Ravana is vegetarian, whereas Rama’s vice-like passion for hunting is so strong that he abandons his spouse in order to pursue (and kill) a particularly beautiful deer.  By way of contrast, Ravana exemplifies asceticism, forebearance, and learning … but is doomed by love.  In the essay “Three Hundred Ramayanas,” A.K. Ramanujan writes that:

In the Jain texts … Ravana is a noble hero fated by his karma to fall for Sita and bring death upon himself.

And, in some Shaivite interpretations of the Ramayana, the supposed villain has orchestrated the entire affair for the good of the world.  In these tellings, Ravana is like Jesus, intentionally sacrificing himself to potentiate salvation for others.

Mohanty and Goel’s Ravanayan follows this tradition.  In addition to stunning illustrations (seriously, check out Goel’s pictures of Brahma, a creator who contains galaxies), their books offer deep psychological insight, especially in their explanations for Ravana’s seemingly irrational behavior.  In their telling, Ravana is perfectly aware of the pain that he is causing, but he believes that the only way to save the world is by sacrificing himself and those he loves.

Goel’s Brahma.

Goel often depicts Ravana alone, repulsed by the suffering that he himself must cause in pursuit of greater good.

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Precisely because Mohanty and Goel do such an excellent job depicting other portions of the Ramayana, I was disappointed that their series skips the Shoorpanakha episode.  In this scene, an adventurous woman is traveling alone when she meets Rama and his brother.  The two are so gorgeous and charming that she feels smitten and begins to flirt.  The brothers tease her briefly … then mutilate her face by hacking off her nose and ears, a standard punishment for sexual impropriety.

As it happens, the woman whom Rama and his brother have abused is Ravana’s sister.  Shoorpanakha returns to her brother’s kingdom to show Ravana what was done to her.  Only then does Ravana decide to kidnap Rama’s spouse, hoping to punish the brothers for assaulting his sister.

In ancient India, it was unacceptable for a woman to travel alone.  Much worse, Shoorpanakha felt infatuated and attempted to act upon her desires.  Female desire was seen as inherently dangerous; Rama and his brother could been seen as exemplary men despite this assault because Shoorpanakha deserved to have her face sliced open.

Although Mohanty and Goel don’t show Rama and his brother disfiguring Shoorpanakha, her depiction in the first volume of their series is decidedly unsympathetic.  She is described as “wildness itself, chasing after anything that moved.”  When she and her siblings find an injured jungle cat, her younger brother says they should nurse it back to health; she wants to eat it. 

And then, as part of his plan to sacrifice himself for the sake of the story, Ravana murders Shoorpanakha’s husband in order to send her mad with grief. Because no sane woman would be so bold, possessed of such unnatural appetites, as to want to seduce the beautiful, charming, divine men she meets while traveling.

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The Ramayana is thousands of years old.  It’s unreasonable to expect ancient stories to mirror contemporary sensibilities.  We know now, obviously, that many people whose cells contain two x chromosomes enjoy travel, adventure, and sex.  They shouldn’t be judged for their desire.  And certainly not assaulted in retribution for it, as Shoorpanakha was.

Except that … they are.  The New York Times recently ran an article on some of the women who have been attacked while (and quite possibly for) traveling alone.

Women are still punished for their appetites.  For perfectly acceptable behavior, things that would seem strange for men to fear.

If the world were different, I probably wouldn’t fault Mohanty and Goel for their depiction of Shoorpanakha.  After all, they’re working with ancient source material.  The original audience for the Ramayana would have shared a prejudice against adventuresome women.

But, until our world gets better, I feel wary of art that promotes those same prejudices.

A beautiful comic book could change the way kids think about the world.  In The Ravanayan, Mohanty and Goel push readers to feel empathy even for a story’s traditional villain.  I just wish they’d done more.  Our world still isn’t safe for women.  Shoorpanakha, too, has a story that deserves to be heard.

On resurrection.

On resurrection.

Achilles briefly reaped fame and glory, then died in battle.  But people continued to speak of his feats with reverence.  In the underworld, he was as a god.

Yet Achilles would have traded everything – lived in squalor as a peasant farmer instead of fighting alongside kings – if it meant he could still be alive.

“No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus!

By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man –

some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive –

then rule down here over all the breathless dead.”

(translated by Robert Fagles)

The mythologies of ancient Greece offered no opportunity for resurrection.  As best I can recall, only one person almost managed to live again, and only because she’d charmed the world’s greatest musician.

Most other religions postulate that the dead could return.  This seems to be a widespread belief because it gives people hope.  It’s easier to face death – our own or the passing of loved ones – if we think that we could be reborn. 

Even contemporary physicists speculate on the possibility of rebirth.  Our minds are patterns.  If the number of possible patterns is bounded, perhaps because physical space is granular … and if the universe is infinitely large, with an infinite quantity of matter to arrange and rearrange … and if time itself is boundless … then something very much like you will come back. Eventually. 

The most probable form of resurrection is as a “Boltzmann brain,” a hypothetical structure in which the random fluctuations of a gaseous cloud temporarily recreates the connectivity as your current mind, including every memory and every perception that you seem to possess right now.  Sure, you think you’ve lived here on Earth for years, which would seem to indicate that you’re not just a gaseous floating brain … but there’s no reason why the brain couldn’t blink into existence full of false memories.  Your entire past might be a momentarily delusion.  Even your present perceptions – everything that you’re experiencing right now, the sights and sounds and feeling of existence – exist within your mind and so could be recreated within a floating cloud.

Stardust is beautiful — but can it think? Image from Hubble/NASA Goddard on Flickr.

Indeed, the physicists who believe our universe to be infinite and eternal think that there would be many times more “Boltzman brains” than living humans, and so you now are more likely to be a floating mind than an extant creature.  Again and again, they believe, you’ll exist between the stars.

This speculation seems no different from any other form of religious belief.  Rebirth is rebirth, whether you think that the pattern that makes you will arise again as an animal, an angel, or a disembodied spirit in the sky …

But we, as individuals, are unlikely to return.

More often, it’s religions themselves that are resurrected.  They slip away; we strive to bring them back.  Like Daoism, Wicca, or Odinism.  From Ian Johnson’s recent essay, “In Search of the True Dao,”

Louis Komjathy, a scholar who diligently seeks authentic Daoism, searches for masters who can initiate him into a lineage, even though Daoist lineages have been largely destroyed by the upheavals of the twentieth century.  There is no direct transmission of the ancient wisdom; instead it is a recreation of a lost past.

Depiction of mountains by Zhang Lu (1464–1538) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

At one time, the predominant religion in England was that of the druids and witches.  Roman soldiers, who were hoping to conquer the world, reported that these druids were rotten people, bloodthirsty and fond of human sacrifice.  Of course, similar slanders have been levied against outsiders throughout human history – Protestant Christians accused Catholics of human sacrifice, Muslims accused Christians of polytheism, Europeans accused Jews of all manner of imaginary ills, and even today many Americans believe Islam to be an inherently violent religion.  I don’t think the Roman reports about those evil druids are very credible.

Pagans managed to repel the Roman invaders.  But then, years later, Christianity spread throughout Europe, displacing the old faiths. 

No one recorded the original beliefs or mythologies of the druids.  Celtic mythology was written down only after the populace had converted; to make the stories “safe,” they were recorded as the memories of conquered giants who had been exorcised by Saint Patrick.

Similarly, the Norse myths we know today were recorded several generations after the populace had converted to Christianity.  Poets were worried that no one would be able to read the ancient literature that had inspired them, because Icelandic poets described everything obliquely.  For instance, you weren’t supposed to write the word “beer” in a poem; instead, you’d say something like “Odin’s gift,” since there was a myth in which Odin brought a special beer to share with the other gods, or you’d say “the eagle’s gift,” since Odin had changed shape to become an eagle in that story, or “Thor’s challenge,” since there was another myth in which Thor thought he was drinking beer but was actually slurping up the ocean. 

The special beer that Odin stole is said to have inspired all poetry.  Good poetry comes from the beer leaking out the Odin-eagle’s front end; bad poetry from the back.

And, yes, “Thor’s challenge” could also mean “ocean.”  The old poems strike me as standoffish – instead of inviting listeners to share an experience, the poets were challenging people to understand.  Poetry not as a gift, but an obtuse riddle intended to demonstrate how clever the poet is.  (Actually, some contemporary American poetry is like that too, and I think it’s silly.)

When I read the Norse myths, I can’t help but think that the Christian scribes’ prejudices seeped into the stories.  These scribes’ version of Christianity denigrated women – and most of the Norse myths about female heroes were coincidentally lost.

Indeed, some contemporary Christians’ prejudice against women is so stolid that when archaeologists sequenced DNA from a famous warrior’s skeleton and realized that she, the ceremonially-buried warrior, was female, many people suddenly decided that perhaps this woman was not a great warrior after all.

Her prowess had never been questioned until we learned that she had two X chromosomes.

And so, although we still have a story explaining that Thor’s greatest battle occurred while he was wearing a dress, other tales of feminine triumph (which are referenced throughout the cannon) were left out.

But, even if we still had the full set of stories, we wouldn’t really understand the viking religion.  With a copy of the Bible, you wouldn’t really understand Christianity; a copy of the Torah wouldn’t let you suddenly understand Judaism.  In practice, these religions seek kindness and community, but the underlying texts are violent and petty.  Yahweh felt slighted and decided to murder millions in a flood.  You’d have a pretty skewed vision of Christianity if that’s how you thought believers were supposed to behave.

As Anthony Appiah explains in The Lies that Bind, the traditions and practices of a religion are often more important than the foundational documents describing the creed.  In practice, the Jewish people of my home town don’t believe that sinners should be drowned in a flood, but rather welcome the lost into interfaith shelters, sharing warm clothes and a meal.

But when violent white supremacists decided to resurrect Odinism based off the preserved Norse myths, they created a strikingly unpleasant religion.  They do not know any of the traditions.  Instead, they base their beliefs on a handful of stories about the gods’ violent battles against giants, others about a human’s cursed wedding and betrayal. 

And, look – I’ve obviously never discussed theology with an ancient viking, either.  Maybe their beliefs really were brutish and unpleasant.  But I suspect that the vikings would feel puzzled, if not dismayed, were they to meet the tattoo-riddled milk-chuggers who self-describe as Odinists today.

On the question of whom to blame for the paucity of women in science.

On the question of whom to blame for the paucity of women in science.

978-080704657-9I was super excited to read Eileen Pollack’s The Only Woman in the Room.  There are a lot of problems with academic science, and these have been getting better much more haltingly than one might expect.  And the problem isn’t just individuals with retrograde attitudes — although that’s clearly an issue — but also structural and cultural arrangements that bias against neurotypical females.

I’d hoped that the bulk of Pollack’s book would be devoted to documenting these problems and offering suggestions for corrective measures.  If we as a society value science enough that we want for the best and brightest of all genders, upbringings, personality types, etc., to participate in the field’s advancement, I think there’s a dire need for investigative journalism that’d produce that sort of book.

Pollack’s book is primarily a memoir, however.  This is useful, too.  There’s a reason why medical journals still publish narrative-driven case studies in addition to the charts detailing aggregate patient response and recovery rates.  Details can be presented in stories that might be overlooked or ignored when many people’s experiences are moshed together to make a statistic.  After all, if we want the statistics to change, it’s women’s experience, actual lived experience, that we need to fix.

si-sexisminscienceBut I felt displeased while reading Pollack’s book.  My major complaint is that most of the book castigates scientists for the paucity of women in STEM fields… but the narrative suggests clearly that, in this case, the biggest problem is the behavior of non-scientists.

I’ll get back to that point in a moment, but first I should make clear that I’m not writing from the standpoint of an apologist who thinks the current state of things is fine.

Where I studied, first-year Ph.D. students had weekly tea with the founder of the department.  These were advising / advice sessions.  Students could talk about their interests, ask questions about the history of the field, get input on their courses, their research, their search for an advisor whose interests and outlook matched their own.  All told, a valuable experience for budding scientists.  But the advisor, an elderly male, invariably asked a female student to serve tea to everyone else in the room.  Even if he believed that the advice he dispensed next was gender neutral, that initial request (reasonable enough at the first meeting, because someone has to pour tea, and even at the second, but disheartening by the nth time the same young woman is asked to serve her classmates) discolored everything he said next.

Or there were the monthly lunchtime research talks.  A modestly-dressed fourth-year student gave a presentation on her research, fecal analysis of mothers and infants to learn when and with what species a newborn human’s intestinal track is colonized, and after the talk a female faculty member said to her, “That was a nice talk, but your breasts were very distracting.”

Individuals with that sort of retrograde attitude make science worse.  And it’s not just elderly professors who’re like that.  The individual from the tea incident, for instance, has since been retired by the reaper (the prevailing mood in the department was very somber after he passed.  For most, but not all.  When we rode in the elevator together, a UPS deliveryman told me, “You know, I’d feel bad too, except the old guy yelled at me just last week.”).  But it’s not as though there’ve been no young misogynists to replace the retiring ones.

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And there are structural problems.  There’s a particular way that advisors expect scientists to talk about their research — brash, confident, competitive, as though it is magnitudes more important than anything else — that seems to come easier to the average male than the average female.  People who don’t have that sort of competitive attitude, whether male or female, can be marginalized… but for a host of both biological and cultural reasons, men in this country are more likely to have that sort of attitude than women.

Maybe this would be fine if brash, stereotypically masculine behavior resulted in better science.  It doesn’t.  Good science is intensely collaborative.  Competitive attitudes, like the race aspect of modern academic science to publish findings first before someone else “scoops” your work, diminish the quality and quantity of data that everyone has to work with.  And contributes to the irreproducibility of modern science, because researchers are pressured to specialize in niche techniques that are used on a particular problem in only one laboratory.

Of course, individual scientists don’t have the freedom to rebel from this system … if only because granting agencies are set up to fund only researchers who conform.  If one researcher decided to behave more collaboratively, the lab would probably run out of money and die.

Academic science could be changed in ways that would make it more inviting to women and would result in better science.  And those are changes that I think scientists will need to make.

Whereas Pollack’s book, despite castigating scientists, felt quite short on recommendations for changes that scientists should make to their behavior.  (I.e., changes to the behavior of a scientist who isn’t explicitly prejudiced against women, but has simply absorbed the cultural norms of modern academia.)

The most important corrective that Pollack offers is that scientists should be more emotive in complimenting students on work they’ve done well.  This is probably true.  In K.’s science class, for instance, she makes a conscious effort to praise students for their successes.  Praise them with words, not just a high score marked at the top of an exam.

Reading Pollack’s narrative, for instance, we learn that after a successful physics internship, the professor said only, “We’d like to have you back next year.”  After a successful research project in mathematics, her advisor didn’t praise her — a stark contrast to the lavish praise articulated by her writing professor.

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But I think it’s worth considering a possible reason why Pollack’s physics professors may have been less effusive than her humanities professors.  While working in physics, the primary language is mathematics.  Quite a bit of physics doesn’t make much sense when expressed in a metaphorical language like English — the language most of us use to express our feelings, or to praise people, is simply maladapted to conveying a clear understanding of the universe.  So the practice of physics enriches for people much more adept with numbers than words.

Whereas humanities professors work with words full-time.  They really ought to be able to praise people with words more effectively than scientists can.

But the problem isn’t just that evaluating their competence for verbal praise is like judging both a carpenter and a welder on their skill with a blowtorch — is it fair to blame someone for relative inexperience compared to a full-time user? — it’s that many scientists have narrative experiences of their own that train them not to be effusive.

In part because the language of science is mathematics, science enriches for people who’re vaguely on the autism spectrum (I’d much rather use the term “Asperger’s” here, but that’s a topic for another post).  And many of those people experienced bewildering derision in response to their attempts to compliment people while growing up.  There are numerous examples of this in Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes, and I certainly have stories of my own.  I learned that it was safe to state facts (akin to the physics professor’s “We’d like to have you back next year”) but that emotional content often led to mockery.

2981Indeed, much of Pollack’s book is devoted to frustration that so few people wanted to date or have sex with her.  The book is sprinkled with lines like, “The only reason I could see that I wasn’t datable was that I was majoring in a subject they saw as threatening,” or a description of a woman who “hated when her sister introduced her as an astrophysics major, because the boys would turn away.

A big reason why women and minorities need to be praised to keep them excited about STEM fields is that stigma from the outside world.  But that’s not scientists’ fault!  I felt sad, reading the book, because so much of it seemed to blame scientists and praise humanities people, yet those same humanities people create the problems that weigh most heavily on Pollack’s mind.  Yes, it’s crummy that most boys at parties considered her not date-able.  But those boys were by and large humanities majors.  Because non-scientists were mean to her, Pollack needed for scientists to give her more praise.

Sure, it’s a big problem that scientists didn’t work hard enough to retain her in the field.  But it’s a bigger problem that non-scientists were so mean that, by the time she arrived at college, those science professors needed to work to retain the two (!) female students who enrolled in the introductory physics lecture instead of trusting that a reasonable fraction of 60 female enrollees (her lecture had 120 students) would stay in the field.

I was sad that this wasn’t stated explicitly until page 254 of a 257-page book, and even then in only two sentences in the middle of a paragraph:

It’s the larger society that needs to change.  No American of either gender will want to become a scientist if studying science or math makes a middle schooler so nerdy he or she becomes undatable, or if science and math are taught in a way as to seem boring or irrelevant.

More on violence against women … sexism, in particular.

This is second in a series.  Find the first essay here.

Given that I’ve been writing about violence against women in a university setting, it’s probably worth slapping together an essay about the paucity of female professors, specifically in the sciences.  And this is something that’s been addressed quite often, so quite possibly you’ve read a bit about it already.  I’m not sure how much new material I can bring to your attention, but let’s give it a whirl, shall we?

In terms of recent discussions, I think the Larry Summers talk is probably most well-known.  He was addressing explicitly why there are few female professors in science and engineering fields.  I think the single sentence that best encapsulates his thesis is this one:

“It does appear that on many, many different human attributes — height, weight, propensity for criminality, overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability — there is relatively clear evidence that whatever the difference in means — which can be debated — there is a difference in the standard deviation, and the variability of a male and a female population.”

And, sure, I have no idea where he’s getting his data for a genetic linkage to the propensity of criminality — in Chrstine Kenneally’s book “The Invisible History of the Human Race” she discusses the strikingly low crime rates among certain populations that should’ve been enriched for criminality according to the evolutionary founder effect, in that the initial settlers were all British criminals — but let’s leave aside potential issues with factuality and just focus on his claim for a moment.  He’s saying that the important issue isn’t whether men or women are more intelligent; that topic has been argued to death.  Not that people don’t still argue about that topic.  And not that it would be unfair for women to feel a bit irked by the nonsensical arguments made in the past… like, here, here’s a choice quote from H.R. Hays’s “The Dangerous Sex”:

P. Moebius, a German scientist who had an explanation for everything, in a book Concerning the Physiological Intellectual Feebleness of Women, published in 1907, settled the matter.  He had taken a look at the female brain and reported, “Extraordinarily important parts of the brain necessary for spiritual life, the frontal convolutions and the temporal lobes, are less well developed in women and this difference is inborn.”  Hampered by their inferior organs of thought, it was natural that “hypocrisy, that is lying, is the natural and indispensable womanly weapon.  Then, too, “That the sciences, in the strictest sense, have received no enrichment from women and never shall is therefore understandable.”  It was all for the best, however, because: “If we wish a woman to fulfill her task of motherhood fully, she cannot possess a masculine brain.  If the feminine abilities were developed to the same degree as those of the male, her maternal organs would suffer and we should have before us a repulsive and useless hybrid.”  This was the opinion of a psychologist of some reputation.

(And, right… Marie Curie won the Nobel prize in physics four years prior to the publication of Moebius’s work.  And the Nobel prize in chemistry four years after.)

Anyway, that was not the argument Summers was making.  That would’ve been too risky.  Obviously taboo for a university president to claim… and, more importantly in my opinion, too easy to measure.  Too easy for most people to understand.  But what Summers is claiming instead is that the standard deviation for a distribution of female mathematical ability is smaller; i.e., if you were to graph female mathematical ability, it might look like Everest compared to the Olympus Mons graph of male ability (is it appropriate to reference Martian mountains to explain boorish comments?  I’m not sure.  I just think mountains are cool.  And something that always stuck with me was a line from a book about Mars that I read when I was six or seven, about how Olympus Mons wouldn’t look very tall because its slope is so gradual, but it’s actually taller than any mountain on earth).  So Summers is claiming that males would be enriched far away from the mean.  If a university was hiring only the best of the best of the best, they’d hire men even if their decisions weren’t sexist.

And, yes, that is mathematically plausible.  But in the absence of any data other than the current state of the world, it doesn’t seem like a valid argument to make.  It seems like making a claim about a genetic influence on criminality based on, say, the current distribution of ethnicities in U.S. prisons, without considering all the other factors that have made it that way.  Because, right, as far as the prison thing… I’ve twice mentioned Michelle Alexander’s work in previous essays, so this time I’ll include a quote from Mary Flannery’s article “The School to Prison Pipeline”:

In fact, according to research, Black students do not “act out” in class more frequently than their White peers.  But Black students are more likely to be sent to the principal’s office for subjective offenses, like “disrupting class,” and they’re more likely to be sent there by White teachers, according to Kirwan Institute research on implicit bias.  (White students, on the other hand, are more likely to be suspended for objective offenses, like drug possession.)

And, also from her article: The bias starts early.  Black children represent 18 percent of pre-school students, but account for 48 percent of pre-school suspensions.  Yes, we’re talking about 4-year-olds.

(Which, if you’d like to read more about this, there’s a horrible report published by Columbia’s law school about the ways black girls in particular are being unfairly booted out of school“In 2007, a 6-year-old girl was arrested in a Florida classroom for having a tantrum.  Later that year, a 16-year-old girl was arrested in a California school for dropping cake on the floor and failing to pick it up to a school officer’s satisfaction.”  And I realize this is something of a digression from Summers’s remarks, but the issue is that all these factors, like institutional biases clearly revealed by the way different students are treated, contribute toward students’ perceptions of themselves, which contributes to their academic performance.)

To me, given the fact that white & black or male & female or rich & poor students are all raised in cultures that have these biases makes the idea of measuring the contribution of genetics to statistical means difficult, but would make the estimation of a genetic contribution to the second moment of the distribution, i.e. the standard deviation, which you need even more and better data to calculate accurately… unwise. Isn’t it presumptuous to claim you can measure genetic contributions to standard deviation when many experiments have shown that stereotype threat has effects on scores that often seem as large or larger than person to person variance?

Worse, even though a lot of people assume that grading for mathematical exams is objective (which is why I always enjoyed math classes more than English classes in high school — I was an unlikeable little dude, which my teachers were somehow able to sniff out.  Or, well, more accurately, I seem to have an undiagnosed case of high-functioning autism, and that may have made my interactions with teachers difficult.  Apparently underdiagnosis is fairly common and many people who were undiagnosed until adulthood have had far worse luck than I did), Lavy and Sand just completed a study showing that graders who knew elementary students’ genders unfairly (but presumably unconsciously) gave the girls lower scores than boys.  Lavy & Sand rightfully conclude that biases female children are subject to in elementary school can have major implications for effort and interest in math courses for the rest of their lives.

So, right, on what data exactly would you base the claim that women lack mathematical or scientific aptitude?

Recently, though — and also well-publicized — Ceci, Ginther, Kahn & Williams published a study claiming that hiring for academic science does not discriminate against women.  Now, their paper had a few minor problems… if you’re interested, you should look at Emily Willingham’s blog post about it.  Willingham gives a good tour of which figures in their paper show information that would lead the average human to conclude something rather different from the conclusions Ceci et al. came to.  There’s not tons more that I think I could add to her analysis, so instead I’ll diverge on an even wider tangent based on a quote from her essay: “So, as it turns out, it’s not the girls who are expressing less interest.  Society is expressing less interest in the girls’ potential interest… very early on.”

From here, I could launch into a further discussion of the gender stereotypes imposed on children… I’ve read a little bit about that since N was born.  But why not go big?  Why not instead quote from Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen’s recent book where they looked at population statistics to ask why girls aren’t even born, not at a level you’d expect.  Definitely this is a problem in India, and in China, where the ensuing male-enriched generation even earned a fancy bleak name (“bare branches”… which I’ve always hoped would be replaced by the still-bleak but prettier-sounding term “autumn limbs,” but I doubt I’ll get my wish.  Even the passage in my own book contrasting these two terms was deleted for adding too little in too much space).  Dreze & Sen wrote:

To illustrate, consider the recent introduction, in many Indian states, of schemes of cash incentives to curb sex-selective abortion.  The schemes typically involve cash rewards for the registered birth of a girl child, and further rewards if the girl is vaccinated, sent to school, and so on, as she gets older.  These schemes can undoubtedly tilt economic incentives in favour of girl children.  But a cash reward for the birth of a girl could also reinforce people’s tendency to think about family planning in economic terms, and also their perception, in the economic calculus of family planning, that girls are a burden (for which cash rewards are supposed to compensate).  Further, cash rewards are likely to affect people’s non-economic motives.  For instance, they could reduce the social stigma attached to sex-selective abortion, by making it look like some sort of ‘fair deal’ — no girl, no cash.  The fact that the cash incentives are typically lower for a second girl child, and nil for higher-order births, also sends confusing signals.  In short, it is not quite clear what sort of message these cash incentives are supposed to convey about the status and value of the girl child, and how they are supposed to affect social attitudes towards sex-selective abortion.  As mentioned earlier, the workings of social norms is critically important in this kind of area of values and actions, and it is important to think about the possible effects of cash transfers on social norms and their role, and not just about economic self-interest.

And, yes.  I think this is creepy.  Because it does send the message that raising a girl is a clear burden to you and your family, and that it’ll only be worth it if the government pays you.  It’s not like those girls who aren’t aborted reap much benefit from that extra money, either; there’s Jayachandran & Pande’s recent study on malnutrition and height comparing Indian and African children that shows routine undernourishment of daughters in India.  Or you could add Hays’ short riff on infanticide (also from “The Dangerous Sex”):

“Only a few people practiced female infanticide, however: among them the Papuans of the Torres Straits.  The Zulu who slaughter an ox as an offering when a boy is born are kinder and merely say, “Why should we kill an ox for a girl?  She is merely a weed.”

Yes, these are all distinct cultures from where Ceci et al. analyzed university hiring, but still: it’s worth considering the fact that, world-wide, women are so little valued they don’t even get to eat.  Teachers might assume you can’t do math and grade in ways that validate their assumptions.  If you ever go to the grocery store, you’ll see magazines featuring only very young (or Photoshopped to be young-looking) women’s faces, contrasted to a range of ages for men.  Is it reasonable to think that all those things aren’t still imposing a psychological toll?