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Girls and Boys and Math
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Natalie Angier and Kenneth Chang co-wrote this editorial for the NY Times following the Larry Summers flap.

I thought these bits were interesting:

"We adults may think very different things about boys and girls, and treat them accordingly, but when we measure their capacities, they're remarkably alike," said Elizabeth Spelke, a professor of psychology at Harvard. She and her colleagues study basic spatial, quantitative and numerical abilities in children ranging from 5 months through 7 years.

"In that age span, you see a considerable number of the pieces of our mature capacities for spatial and numerical reasoning coming together," Dr. Spelke said. "But while we always test for gender differences in our studies, we never find them."

But differences and disparities begin to emerge and become more pronounced in adolescence. So how do you normalize for social factors? How about looking at scores across cultures? But if most cultures tend to be male-centered, we might find that common trend if socialization contributed to lower female math scores. But we don't.

In an international standardized test administered in 2003 by the international research group Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to 250,000 15-year-olds in 41 countries, boys did moderately better on the math portion in just over half the nations. For nearly all the other countries, there were no significant sex differences.

But average scores varied wildly from place to place and from one subcategory of math to the next. Japanese girls, for example, were on par with Japanese boys on every math section save that of "uncertainty," which measures probabilistic skills, and Japanese girls scored higher over all than did the boys of many other nations, including the United States.

In Iceland, girls broke the mold completely and outshone Icelandic boys by a significant margin on all parts of the test, as they habitually do on their national math exams.

Are we willing to attribute these differences to genetics? I don't think so.

Look, I taught math. In the first high school I taught, I'd say 8 of the top 10 students in terms of aptitude and mathematical reasoning were girls. Maybe the sample was skewed, but in my experience as a teacher I never saw a gender difference when it came to students' ability to acquire and apply mathematical concepts. There were certainly differences between individuals when it came to aptitude and motivation, but these never seemed to fall along gender lines. Then again, perhaps I was projecting my own biases...who knows.

My personal belief, since any nature/nurture issue is generally too complicated to empirically untangle and definitively rule on, is that even though there are genetic and physical differences, the human brain is the most flexible and adaptable organ known. And while on average women might make poorer NFL linebackers, there is no significant disparity in cognitive skills. I think some people have greater or worse aptitudes for various cognitive tasks, but I don't think that has anything to do with gender.

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