Colonialism and John Tierney

July 13, 2010

I’m slowly closing the gap between myself and current events. In this post I’ll briefly take up the question of why New York Times science writer John Tierney might have chosen to write a piece back in early June that focused on supposed evidence that more boys than girls are really, really good at math and science.

To wit:

The Duke researchers — Jonathan Wai, Megan Cacchio, Martha Putallaz and Matthew C. Makel — focused on the extreme right tail of the distribution curve: people ranking in the top 0.01 percent of the general population, which for a seventh grader means scoring above 700 on the SAT math test. In the early 1980s, there were 13 boys for every girl in that group, but by 1991 the gender gap had narrowed to four to one, presumably because of sociocultural factors like encouragement and instruction in math offered to girls.

Since then, however, the math gender gap hasn’t narrowed, despite the continuing programs to encourage girls. The Duke researchers report that there are still four boys for every girl at the extreme right tail of the scores for the SAT math test. The boy-girl ratio has also remained fairly constant, at about three to one, at the right tail of the ACT tests of both math and science reasoning. Among the 19 students who got a perfect score on the ACT science test in the past two decades, 18 were boys.

Meanwhile, the seventh-grade girls outnumbered the boys at the right tail of tests measuring verbal reasoning and writing ability. The Duke researchers report in Intelligence, “Our data clearly show that there are sex differences in cognitive abilities in the extreme right tail, with some favoring males and some favoring females.”

Riiiight. Truly iron clad reasoning there.

I was reminded of Tierney after reading another nice passage in my social theory book. Feminist philosopher Nancy Hartsock quoted the Tunisian writer Albert Memmi from his book The Colonizer and the Colonized, which is about how Western colonial powers represented their colonized peoples:

… the colonialist stresses those things that keep him separate rather than emphasizing that which might contribute to the foundation of a joint community. In those differences, the colonized is always degraded and the colonialist finds justification for rejecting his subjectivity. But perhaps the most important thing is that once the behavioral feature or historical or geo-graphical factor which characterizes the colonialist and contrasts him with the colonized has been isolated, this gap must be kept from being filled. The colonialist removes the factor from history, time and therefore possible evaluation. What is actually a sociological point becomes labeled as being biological, or preferably, metaphysical. It is attached to the colonized’s basic nature. Immediately the colonial relationship between colonized and colonizer, founded on the essential outlook of the two protagonists, becomes a definitive category. It is what it is be-cause they are what they are, and neither one nor the other will ever change.

Similarly, Tierney would have us believe that women are inherently lacking in the highest levels of math and science ability. Woman is the Other, and nothing can change that. It’s biological. And because Tierney knows it to be biological, he is blind to the amazing shortcomings in his argument.

More to come on all these themes, I’m sure.

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5 Responses to “Colonialism and John Tierney”

  1. james Says:

    well said. it drives me crazy how much of this sort of thinly veiled otherism passes as real science/ journalism.

    it rose a couple questions in my mind – something about what is causing these differences? systemic inequality, societal gender constructs, etc? obviously many careers’ worth of work answering those., but then also i was thinking about how weird it is the way we separate the fields of literature (female) and math/science (male) as if literature and language are effermal practices based on imagination and feelings while math and science are hard anylitics.

    i mean lets put aside the fact that imagination and logic have been gendered. but how about the idea that grammar is to arithmetic as literature is to theoretical physics? i mean i guess it comes down to this idea that ultimately language is describing the world of humans (culture) and science the universe (without people) – and, though science is necessarily described using language (feminine?) and math (masculine?), it really speaks to our modern desire to separate ourselves from the physical world, right? – ooh theory – we (men) reliquished the fields of culture to women around the same time that ownership of humans was stopped. so men retained ownership of the fields concerned with the physical (ownable) and thus power. because modern people are controlled through property rather than social ties. add closing of the commons.

    ok also curious about more individualized studies. like i remember looking at the Iron Man competition – this CRAZY triathlon – and talking to someone who was saying men are just stronger than women – fact. so we looked up to find that the fastest woman’s time now is better than the fastest men’s times from the 60s. so time machine this women’s champ back 40 years and Boom society would have chanted ‘Women ARE stronger then Men’. maybe.

    – these are totally unorganized, unedited thoughts – apologies for the rambling.

    love the was youre thinking these days!

  2. james Says:

    ok so i think that culture/ownership connection was a little reductive – what i meant was – its interesting how we create divisions and relinquish certain fields as feminine depending on how they relate to retaining power. basically im asking – how is literature not related to having power? and how is science/math related to having power? – the modern emphasis on commodifiable (physical) progress seems to give preference to science/math. this kind of makes me wonder about other things that are culturally gendered how how they relate to power – without looking at any studies I might hypothesize that many of the things we recognize as masculine also retain alot of power. thinking of things like religion (masculine) vs. spiritual (feminine), mothering (feminine) vs. comfort commodities cigarettes, booze, tv (masculine)

  3. JR Minkel Says:

    James, as always, you’re 10 steps ahead of me. I do have some related thoughts that I will put in a separate post.


  4. […] And even if there are legitimate sex differences, it’s a little odd for someone like John Tierney to make a conscious choice to focus on those differences, as if he doesn’t know he’s […]


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