American Scientist goes “progressive” with a truly bizarre article

January 28, 2023 • 1:15 pm

American Scientist is a bimonthly science publication put out by Sigma Xi, the honorary fraternity for scientists and engineers. ( I think I’m a member but can’t recall.) At any rate, it specializes in popular articles about science but is now including articles like the one below, which could well be described with the “w word.”  Does this hijacking of a science magazine by “progressive” ideology remind you of any similar incidents?

At any rate, the article below, which purports to be about science and music, and has a very clickbait-y title, turns out to be a bunch of unevidenced assertions that add up to this claim: when people rank music, very often men come in at the top, and women lower.  That’s because, they say, of bigotry against women musicians. Further, just like in music, women don’t rise to their proper level in science. That, too, is because of present-day structural misogyny in science.

I’m not sure why they make this comparison, since the claim about misogyny has been made widely, and they could just write about women and STEM. But that has been done to death, so I suppose that’s why they dragged music into it. But they don’t substantiate the claims they make, blithely assuming that the ranking of women in both science and music reflects misogyny that, while abating in modern times, is still practiced by guys. It’s also very poorly written, with the connection between the two areas not made well at all. It’s just a comparison without data, presumably made to show the science magazine’s virtue.

Click to read

Again I’ll argue that yes, of course there used to be misogyny in science, and it was widespread. Women of enormous talent were forced into other areas, or, if allowed into science, weren’t often given regular academic jobs, and were discriminated against in many other ways. The predominance of men in science was palpably obvious, and the discrimination against women in the past is made clear from the fact that since prejudice has fallen, women are now pouring into the field.  Things aren’t yet adhering to “equity” (50% of each sex), but I doubt that once can make a convincing for present structural sexism in science. (Of course, there are male scientists who are sexists and act on it; I’m talking about the mores and practices of science in general.)

We have to remember, too, that there are data showing that some of the sex inequity in STEM reflects different choices of the sexes as well. This is the famous “gender equality paradox”, showing that the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields actually increases in countries that have more gender-equality. The explanation is that women aren’t as interested in STEM fields as men, and in gender-equal countries they are freer to exercise their preference, while in poorer and more gender-biased countries (the two factors are correlated), women gravitate more towards STEM because it’s professional, lucrative, and offers a step up in remuneration and quality of life. I wrote about this result at length, and showed the data, in a post from 2018.

A short summary of the American Scientist’s argument:

a.) In December, the Philadelphia public radio station asked its listners to vote on the 2021 greatest albums of all time.

b.) They the played selections from those albums for a week.

c.) During one nine-hour period of this week, apparently by chance, all the music played was by male groups or vocalists, even though music by women was on the greatest-albums list.

d.) Ergo, there shows bias against women’s music. So does the fact, says the article, that over 80% of Rolling Stone‘s Top 50 albums of all time are by exclusively male groups or singers (many of those asked to vote were women).

e.) The bias towards male music is said to result from brain development, in which younger people develop their taste for music when their brains are forming—between ages 13 and 25.  For older people who voted, their musical tastes were thus formed when male music predominated, and those tastes are reflected in votes throughout their life, ergo the results above.

Have a gander at their theory:

The gender gap, both in STEM education and employment, has been shrinking over time. Is that shrinkage simply a matter of a gradual rise toward better equality from the ground up? I was somewhat surprised when Kurtis pointed me to arguments that the long persistence of inequality in musical tastes may be due to radio listeners’ brains. In a separate Twitter thread, she pointed to neuroscience research that Daniel Levitin wrote about in his 2006 book This Is Your Brain on Music, which suggests that individual music preferences are solidified between the ages of 13 and 25 because of the brain development that typically occurs around that age. Although WXPN did not ask for age or gender information from its listeners when collecting votes, Kurtis told me that this result from cognitive science may explain a generational preference toward certain bands and genres. “While I’m mainly talking about music that was NEW while you were 13–25, really, it’s any music you fell in love with during that time which leaves an indelible mark on your brain, so younger people are still apt to emotionally connect with music older than they are, but older music fans are not as likely to become attached to music released after they turn 25,” Kurtis told me in our email exchange.

I’d say that doesn’t constitute evidence at all. It may be true, and it seems likely that music preferences are indeed formed when you’re younger and are hard or impossible to change. And yes, twenty years ago there were more men than women producing music. (But ask: does this absolutely mean discrimination against women, or could it partly reflect preference for making music?)  But what that has to do with brain development eludes me.

And then the kicker: a sly but duplicitous transition into inequities in STEM:

Does something similar happen in the sciences? Is there a particular age when our brains are most impressionable and open to embracing a STEM-focused career path? If so, do we have to wait to outlive the generation of Baby Boomers reliving the greatest hits from their own teenage wasteland?

The article goes on, and I don’t want to waste my time correcting or highlighting all the conceptual errors that author Shapiro makes.  I will leave you to read it for yourself, but want to make three points:

1). Inequities between groups can have causes other than bias or bigotry. Thus you can’t assert that inequities are prima facie evidence for bigotry. (This is the most pervasive error in social-justice activism these days, and yet it’s almost taboo to discuss it.)

2). Still, women have had a hard time making it in science. This is now being rectified by a gazillion initiatives on many levels, and I see no present evidence of “structural misogyny” in science. Inequities don’t constitute evidence for misogyny going on now, but they likely reflect biases in the past: the invidious signs of history.

3). The piece above does not belong in a science magazine, particularly because of the dearth of evidence supporting their hypothesis (which is theirs).

h/t: Williams

20 thoughts on “American Scientist goes “progressive” with a truly bizarre article

  1. Wonder why they focused on rock music, and not folk, jazz, pop, country, opera…
    And if rock is so male-dominated, what could female fans be getting out of listening to or watching Elvis, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney? Could it be sexism, or could it be just sex?
    But I suppose the most important thing is to dismiss female musicians (Madonna, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Joni Mitchell, Loretta Lynne, Joan Baez, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Big Momma Thornton, Etta James, Ella Fitzgerald, Mariah Carey, Joan Jett, Sarah Vaughan, Chrissie Hynde, Adele…) because cherry-picking your data then supports your predetermined ideological position.

  2. On structural inequality between the sexes in the sciences:

    I think there is little active discrimination against women in STEM these days (indeed, there is the reverse), BUT, there are “structural” factors that do make it harder for a woman scientist to prosper in STEM academia, if that woman values a family life, which (quite properly) many of them do.

    First, there’s the two-body problem. Science tends to be highly specialised, which means that few suitable openings for tenure-track positions will open up during the “window” of opportunity that a scientist has, after getting a PhD and some postdoc experience, to then get a faculty position. That means they usually have to move around to wherever the opportunity arises. And that means, if they are married or have a family, that their partner needs to subordinate their own career to this. That’s fine for a woman with a supportive partner, but:

    The second big factor is that, for a woman who wants children, the biological window of opportunity tends to coincide with exactly the years where a scientist will be moving out of PhD/PI supervision and establishing themselves as an independent scientist and a PI of grants, and establishing the track record that will underpin the rest of their career. If someone takes time out to bear and raise young children, it is then hard (when they return) for them to compete for grants with people who have pursed research non-stop and established more track record.

    With a supportive partner these factors can be overcome. But, we should accept that there are on-average differences between men and women in what their priorities are such that this makes it harder for women to prosper in STEM than men.

    I don’t know how to fix this problem, but this is a real and genuine example of a “structural” problem that leads to un-equal outcomes despite equal opportunity and no active discrimination.

    1. No, “structural bigotry” or “structural inequality” are taken to be built in factors of bigotry in institutions. What you’re talking about are biological differences that institutions are trying to overcome with parental leave, slowed tenure clocks, etc.

      You do realize that the implication here is BIGOTRY, not biological differences that affect career paths between men and women?

    2. My wife (PhD, postdoc, teaching experience) stayed home with our kids for several years. When we tried to solve the two-body problem, most of the female faculty members in my university department were strongly opposed to hiring my wife into a part-time instructor job, and most of my male colleagues favoured it. The person most responsible for not hiring my wife into that part-time job was the female dean of the faculty (the male department head and the male vice-president academic both green-lighted it).

      So yes there’s a structural problem, and yes it’s a kind of sexism, but not the kind that’s most often “opposed” by activists. At least not in my experience.

  3. The data here: shows that across 121 countries some jobs are dominated by women and some by men. Some are more even.

    But for every argument that asserts we need more women in an occupation for the sake of ‘equity’ there is an equal argument the we need more men in other areas of occupation for the sake of ‘equity’. Should we reduce the number of women in caring occupations and make them work in construction? Should we take IT workers (mostly men) and make them work as health professionals (currently mostly women).

    Or should we consider the null hypothesis – that people choose to work in occupations that suit them?

  4. Regarding music, I can think of a plausible evo-psych hypothesis why there are more men in the music business, and correspondingly in the upper echelons:
    Men are more likely to choose high-risk, high reward careers, whereas women are generally drawn to safe careers that are compatible with having a family. What’s the potential evolutionary payoff for a guy who manages to become a bona fide rock star? Immense – watch the Mötley Crüe docu-movie to get an impression. What’s in it in evolutionary terms for a woman? Schlepping kids around on tour for months on end – yay.
    We do see female pop stars – there’s a demand for them, and enough candidates willing to fulfill it – but the studio and tour musicians are mostly men.
    Second hypothesis: becoming a pro-level musician (on an instrument) usually requires spending thousands of hours of woodshedding, alone with your instrument. I would not be surprised if there is an above-average percentage of Asperger-leaning people among pro musicians, and among Aspies, men are overrepresented.

  5. The article is full of inappropriate comparisons and false analogies. Lots of hot air, but no balloon.

    I was once a Sigma Xi member (may still be), but no longer subscribe to The American Scientist.

  6. I’m honestly not sure if the push to get more women into STEM is doing them any favors. The fact of the matter is that academic STEM jobs are not that great these days. The competition is brutal to get a permanent job, and once you get a job the pressure placed on young scientists is enormous. Pressure to publish in glossy journals, pressure to bring in lots of funding, pressure to do DEI and outreach activities.

    Science is supposed to be fun, but it is all bean counting these days.

  7. … when people rank music, very often men come in at the top, and women lower. That’s because, they say, of bigotry against women musicians.

    Well, all I can say is that my taste in music runs pretty much along the same lines as Ray Wylie Hubbard’s in “Chick Singer, Badass Rockin'”:

  8. There is no denying that people despite their merit were held back for many reasons and today its being addressed. There is a legit risk that attempting to heal past wounds would result in a mirror image of the past happening at the expense of meritocracy and talent.

  9. What fraction of, say, classical rock has been made by men? I’d guess> 75%. Given that, my favorite albums divide roughly in proportion to what’s out there by male/female leads, with maybe a slight bias towards men. And that’s because my favorite bands are male dominated. (I would also say, the 90’s were a great decade for female rock artists. Just noted this making a playlist for my daughter, which was about 60/40 men/women.)

    And, oh yeah, dummest article ever. It really does harm (violence??) to all the authors and articles claiming systematic bias of any kind.

  10. “Inequities don’t constitute evidence for misogyny going on now..”

    I could agree that if there are consistent and measurable large scale inequities, then bigotry could be treated as a working hypothesis until it’s weeded out using the methods of science. It looks like it has been so weeded. This just seems to affirm that it’s not uncommon to learn the tools of science without learning anything about the nature of science itself. Scientists end up being among the most scientifically illiterate.

  11. “What Your Favorite Music Says…”

    Ah, of course. Any reader is already assumed to be a misogynist, because everyone is a misogynist, because we live in a systemically racist cisheteropatriarchy, and thus our souls are all imbued with misogyny (among many other undesirable traits).

    Of course, this naturally leads to the conclusion that we must build enormous institutions with ever-ballooning budgets, and their tendrils must reach into every part of every person’s life, so that we may weed out all the nastiness with which we all have been burdened by dint of our mere existence here in this time and place in the universe.

    Original sin is calling; it wants its cudgel back.

  12. I like the music I like (including plenty of female musicians or acts with females in them).

    American Scientist can, as they say, “ram it.”

  13. Prejudice against women in science always make me think of David Hilbert’s remark when he wanted to hire Emmy Noether at Göttingen in spite of their prejudice against women: “Meine Herren, eine Universität ist doch keine Badeanstalt.” A university is no bathing house.

    1. That’s an interesting quote because it shows how liberal Hilbert was for his time, but these days segregated swimming for men and women exists only in the most illiberal places and anyone supporting it would be considered conservative or reactionary.

      The (very well known) mathematician Felix Klein turned down a job at Göttingen because he thought it absurd that he was offered a job and Noether wasn’t.

  14. The subject of prejudice against women in science makes me think of David HIlbert’s remark when he wanted to get the University of Göttingen to hire Emmy Noether: “Meine Herren, eine Universität ist doch keine Badeanstalt.” Gentlemen, a university is not a bath house.

  15. Big issue with their population sample, which is listeners of a public radio station on Philadelphia. Can the study authors show us men and women listen in equal proportions to that radio station? Does the station have talk programming, rock music, jazz, pop or classical according to a schedule? Are audience figures equally distributed among the sexes for each programme? It would not surprise me if there were sex differences in the audiences, say, for talk radio and jazz. The inutility of this as an unbiased sample is highlighted by an easy alternative: why not ask all pupils at a number of high schools for their favourite musicians? There will be very few girls who don’t mention Taylor Swift or Beyonce, and you’ll end up with a different impression entirely.
    As for the nine-hour male only part – place that at the door of the producer who drew up the playlist. And how he, or she, connects with STEM employment beats me!

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