Knowledge - Gender differences?

Do men and women process knowledge differently?

(More importantly, why is this such a hard question to answer?)

Without a doubt there exist some distinguished women, very superior to the average man but they are as exceptional as the birth of any monstrosity, as, for example, of a gorilla with two heads; consequently, we may neglect them entirely.”

Gustave Le Bon 1879

That remark by one of the founding fathers of psychology, Gustave Le Bon, is a really good example of why people need to treat this kind of question with care. Today we know beyond doubt that he’s talking rubbish. The evidence is everywhere! How could such a bright, observant, and well read man get something so obvious, so seriously wrong?

Human beings tend to bring a lot of baggage to discussions of this nature, both consciously and subconsciously. As well as any scientific evidence, we also factor in personal observations, prejudices, cultural beliefs, religious beliefs, politics and any other kind of orthodoxies that have influenced our upbringing.

It’s become fashionable to look back at the great minds of the past and castigate them for their racism, misogyny, or other purported character flaw, but we generally overlook the fact that they were products of their own time, not ours. One day, people in the future will look back at us, and judge our own actions and beliefs against the cultural background of that future time, and they too will be asking themselves, “How could they…?’

We have no idea what those future cultural values are going to be. Oh we think we know… They’re going to be a refinement and extension of our own exquisitely wrought models of morality and right thinking, but the Victorians thought the same, and the Georgians before that. In fact, you don’t even have to go back that far. The values of the 1950s differed hugely from the sixties, which differed again to the seventies, and the eighties and so on. We have a no better chance than they did of correctly guessing the future. All we can do is to try and act as properly, fairly and decently as we can within our own view of the world. As did our predecessors.

So, whenever we ask a question like “Do men and women think differently?” or “Do people of race XGZ tend to be better at VBPGT than people of race KWCQ?” we’re not having a simple scientific discussion about a set of empirical, proven facts. It can’t help but get political at some point, which rather screws up our chances of actually finding the scientifically correct answer.

Such questions also tend to bring in the whole “nature vs. nurture” debate, or in this case “what you were born with vs. how you were raised”. The Mythbusters TV series did an interesting exploration of “You throw like a girl!” thing, and they found out that yes, the physiological differences between the male and female bodies do impact the ultimate speed and power, but training and practice bring both sexes up to the same quality of throw. In other words, it’s both nature and nurture.

And that really matters. If a grouping of people are brought up to believe they’re no good at something, most of them will internalise it and act as if it were true. It becomes a self fulfilling prophecy, then a self evident “fact” that the whole of that society believes, and it gets locked in, secured in place by cherry picking the information which reinforces that view of the world.