Special Report

Coming Clean

The real truth about women's brains.

By 3.7.05

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In the school where I once taught, they used to tell the story of the smart-alecky boy in chemistry class who, upon being given meticulous instructions as to the day's classwork, put his hand up and asked: "Please, sir, why do we need to do this experiment? You already know how it comes out, and we don't care." It was a sentiment to which the bosoms of at least half the all-male school instantly returned an echo. Not only did most of those on the artsy side of the arts-sciences divide not care, they passionately didn't care. Very possibly the numbers of the uncaring and the unmotivated in a girl's school would have been even higher. The difference is that nowadays no one cares about the boys who don't care, but the girls who don't care are thought to be letting down their sex.

The cover story by Amanda Ripley in March 7 issue of Time is headlined "The Math Myth: The Real Truth about Women's Brains and the Gender Gap in Science." Scientists who are still working their slow way towards "the Real Truth" on this subject will doubtless be grateful to Time, with its customary enthusiasm for gross simplification, for straightening them out and so making an awful lot of laborious investigation and data-collection unnecessary. Nor will it surprise those who are already acquainted with Time to learn that the Real Truth bears a remarkable resemblance to the politically correct account of male-female learning disparities. For even though there are differences, including physiological ones, between the brains of men and women, they are unlikely to be important. "Men and women perform similarly on IQ tests. And most scientists still cannot tell male and female brains apart just by looking at them."

Most can't but some can? And which ones can't? Physiologists or nuclear physicists? Time does not tell. Anyway, the important datum is that even where different aptitudes in the two sexes show up on tests, it is a simple matter of proper education to annihilate them. "There is plenty of evidence that when young women are motivated and encouraged, they excel at science," Ms. Ripley tells us. As an example, she tells us, girls in Iceland and Sweden are better than boys in math and physics, and because the gap is widest in the remote regions of Sweden, Ms. Ripley and her tame expert, a Danish professor of educational psychology, find it an easy leap to the conclusion that "That may be because women want to move to the big cities farther south, where they would need to compete in high-tech economies, while men are focused on local hunting, fishing and forestry opportunities."

The assumption here seems to be that motivation is an entirely extrinsic phenomenon. The scientifically minded girls are presumed to have become so because of an accident of geography, while the non-scientifically minded ones who haven't had the luck to have been born in some place like Jokkmokk in Swedish Lapland have become the way they are because, presumably, society has let them down and failed to perform its manifest duty of ensuring equal outcomes for the two sexes. Either way, the only intrinsic differences between the sexes that are supposed to matter are cognitive ones -- and of course they don't matter. But what if motivations are also inborn? What if little girls are by nature disposed not to care how the experiment comes out in even greater numbers than little boys? On what grounds do we tell them that they have a duty to care -- at least beyond the conclusion of their minimal scientific education?

The answer can only be that we derive such a duty from the political imperative to make sure that all social outcomes are the same for the two sexes, as only thus can we be sure that one -- that is to say, women -- is not being oppressed or exploited by the other -- that is to say, men. And yet what a procrustean bed we make for ourselves with such a reduction of the personal to the political. Surely it is ideology and not reason which forces us to suppose that natural differences in the moral and emotional dispositions of the two sexes can only be the result of one's exercising an illegitimate power at the expense of the other?

I can think of two analogies. One is the contortions that educational institutions are forced by Title IX to engage in in order to find women who care about participation in sports and games and athletic events, whereas there is never any shortage of men. Of course, the PC account of this phenomenon is likely to be the same as it is in the case of female scientists and engineers: somehow they have been brainwashed by "society" into thinking they can't do these things and therefore they don't want to do them. It seems to me that all the brainwashing these days is going the other way, and yet there are still many fewer women wishing to take part in athletic competition than men. But let that pass. Perhaps the more telling example of inborn differences in what an earlier generation would have called "the passions" is in the sexes' attitudes to the cleanliness of their environment.

Like most people who have lived with members of the opposite sex, I have always taken it for granted that women in general will care more about keeping clean than men in general. Of course this too may be "only" on account of social conditioning -- as if social conditioning were merely arbitrary and alterable at will -- but it is hard to see when and how such conditioning takes place. Even back in the bad old days of the 1950s when I was growing up, children of both sexes were enjoined to keep their rooms clean, but my sister cared about this without prompting while my brothers and I did not. Even threats rarely moved us. In every survey, women are found still to do the vast majority of the housework that is done in America. Is this only because of "sexism"? Or is it because the women by nature find it as hard not to care as men do to care that housework should be done? I'm only asking. But there seems enough of a doubt in this case, as in that of the women scientists, for people of good will to wish that politics might not bring its coercive force to the matter of making people do what they are disinclined to do.

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About the Author

James Bowman, our movie and culture critic, is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is the author of Honor: A History and Media Madness: The Corruption of Our Political Culture, both published by Encounter Books.