Dolls In Science
September 1, 2014

The phrase "human nature" annoys me. It is often used by conservatives to refute ideas offered by those who consider themselves progressive. "Won't work! It's against human nature!"

The statement is literally false, but there is a valid point behind it. The altruistic visionary who believes in equality must believe all people have equal potential for vision and altruism. So she designs a society where a bunch of intelligent, sensitive, altruistic, visionary people are, at least in the vision, getting along just ginger peachy. My hypothetical visionary is not contradicting human nature. She really is intelligent, sensitive, altruistic and visionary. She is making an erroneous assumption about distributions of those qualities. They do exist, but they are only rarely found, in significant degrees, all in the same person. The qualities can be encouraged but they cannot reliably be instilled in masses of people. If "against human nature" is a shorthand way of saying all that, then, yes, the vision won't work because it is "against human nature."

These thoughts are inspired by an article in this morning's Detroit Free Press: Female engineers design dolls with a scientific inspiration / They hope to get girls interested in science. (By Jodi S. Cohen of the Chicago Tribune, Detroit Free Press, Sep. 1, 2014, p. 2D) The article is about Janna Eaves and Supriya Hobbs, one a student at, the other a recent graduate from the engineering school at University of Illinois. They are making a line of science-oriented dolls to help get girls ages 5-10 interested in science.

The ideas motivating the science-doll-duo have been around since the 1970s. ". . . pressure on companies to move away from gender-stereotyped toys . . ." ". . . attention to messages about gender and what you can and can't do." Back in 1986 a college girl I knew complained to me about boys being disproportionately recipients of erector set toys. She went on to get a degree in computer science, so I guess her university education made up for any deficiencies in her upbringing. I don't mean to be sarcastic here. She was a fine young woman and I was lucky to be acquainted with her. I only mean to point out that some of the sillier ideas floating in the nebulous intersection of femininity and { science, technology, engineering, mathematics } have been around for a while.

Here is my opinion: A modest number of boys -- maybe 10 or 20 or 30 percent -- grow up to be proficient in STEM professions (science, technology, engineering and math). Better educational practices and better social policies (encouragement, help for the poor, etc.) could increase the numbers. There are NO educational and social policies that could bring about universal competence in STEM, in males or females. For many young students, even trying to learn high school algebra is painful and pointless. High level abstract reasoning skills are not universal. Many people live happy, fulfilling, positive lives without them.

The percentage of girls who have to potential to excel in STEM-type subjects is probably smaller than the percentage of boys who have that potential. At close to average levels of potential, the differences are small. At high levels of potential and skill, the differences are large. When we measure "gets an A in 9th grade algebra," the male-female differences would be small. When we measure "wins a Nobel Prize in mathematics" the differences would be large.

Let me digress. If an individual has a high potential to succeed in STEM type occupations, I call that individual "brainy." The individual may also be smart or intelligent, but these qualities are not the same. Briefly, brainy is starting each day with a difficult Sudoku puzzle. Smart is being 50 years old and owning a house, a car, being married, having kids and enjoying life in general. I do not claim to be smart. But I am brainy, period. I take pleasure in brainy activities. I'm working my brain right now as I write this (almost obsessively, to be perfectly candid). I'm enjoying myself. This is a good morning.

I know, and have always known, that not everyone is brainy and that some brainy people are male, some are female. I would not want to live in a society where brainy females had no opportunity to exercise their braininess. Society as a whole benefits when it encourages brainy young people, male and female, to fulfill some of their brainy potentials.

So we have a few questions. Are brainy girls and brainy boys more different or more alike in their braininess? Do brainy girls need more encouragement than brainy boys to develop their intellectual skills or to consider some of the more intellectual occupations? Do brainy kids need gender-specific forms of encouragement?

Are Science Dolls part of the solution? I don't think so. I believe playing with dolls and scientific reasoning involve different parts of the brain. In fact, I would be more inclined to give dolls to an overly brainy boy who needed to develop his social skills. But they wouldn't be super-frilly girly dolls -- that is yet another part of the brain. Just my opinions here. Give me a wad of grant money and I'll do some research and write a dissertation.

As for Eaves and Hobbs, I think their idea is more of a gimmick than anything else. It's like the Baby Mozart and Baby Einstein DVDs that were popular a while back. If I had a daughter, I'd get her a Baby Chomsky or a Baby Frege DVD, just for fun. It turns out those DVDs didn't make much of a difference. I don't think the Science Dolls will make much of a difference either, but I do hope that the web site Eaves and Hobbs set up, bemisspossible.com, is successful financially. The dolls qua dolls might become quite popular. I might buy one of their Ada Lovelace dolls for myself.

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I deal with a similar topic in an earlier blog entry:

Hey, Girls! Learn Computer Programming!

Here are a few related ideas.

Probably every high school in America offers some kind of computer education. I have a hunch that much of that instruction is either reasonable preparation for clerical jobs or outright gimmickry. Computers are objects of fascination and fantasy. I imagine, if you ask someone who has, for example, graduated from a school of education, but who has no solid background in logic and real critical thinking, how they might use computers in an educational environment, you will hear all kinds of crazy confabulations. There are exceptions, but many contemporary educators think they are smart when they are not. Their heads are filled with stupid ideas.

My idea for using computers in high school would be aimed specifically at brainy kids, boys and girls alike. It is this: teach real computer programming. Teach the C programming language in a "bash" command-line environment with GNU/Linux utilities. No graphics, no gimmicks, no windows. No girly stuff. No attempt to get essentially slow students to go, "Golly gee, Mom, look! I'm programming a computer!" Just mastery of the language, the environment and some of the utilities. It's a trip. Girls and boys who get into it, who "get it," will learn about a very pleasant state of mind that can become a major part of their lives, if they are smart as well as brainy.
 

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