What not to research

Via Right on the Left Coast, here’s a snippet from article from EdWeek ($):

An advocacy group that promotes increased participation for women in mathematics is calling for the removal of the vice chairwoman of a newly formed national panel studying how to improve student performance in that subject, citing objections over research she conducted in the 1980s on gender differences in math reasoning…

The association, which is based in Fairfax, Va., and says it has 4,100 members, takes issue with three articles written by Ms. Benbow in the 1980s. One of those articles examines the possibility of differences in mathematical reasoning ability between males and females, particularly among those with strong ability in the subject.

The Association for Women in Mathematics’ petition says that the articles conveyed the belief that there are “intrinsic gender differences that favor males at the highest levels of mathematics.” The petition argues that there is considerable research that contradicts Ms. Benbow’s findings…

Here’s a backgrounder posted at the AWM’s web site which gets specific about the objections against Ms. Benbow’s research and a statement from the AWM president. (The biggest objection form the president’s statement seems to be that Ms. Benbow’s research has “already done significant damage”, citing media headlines that blow the research findings out of proportion — in other words, because the media took license, Benbow pays for it.)

The issue is not whether there are actual gender differences in mathematical reasoning ability (regardless of whose research says so or says otherwise). I don’t think that there are such differences, or at least that whatever gender differences might be present are dwarfed by external and cultural differences. But I am also not an education specialist or a psychologist, so I don’t know other than through anecdotal evidence. What I need, what we all need, is real research that shows some picture of the truth.

And therein lies the real issue: Will we allow people to do research in this area without trying to get them kicked off important taskforces as a result? Will we let the rhythm of research run its course — one person publishes results, then others publish in response, and so on, until a progressively more complete picture forms? Or will we simply react against the researchers with whose findings we disagree? And if you publish research (in respected journals, one should note) that ends up not being right, does this disqualify you from saying anything in the struggle to help students learn math better?


Filed under Education, Life in academia, Math

3 responses to “What not to research

  1. If you say something against what the orthodox amongst your race/sex/orientation/religion want you to say, then *of course* you should be kicked off panels and be disqualified from saying anything in the future!

  2. I completely agree with your statement that, even if there were inherent biological differences (which I don’t believe), they would be dwarfed by external and cultural forces. The vast majority of students doing well in math at my school are female. I believe this is due to the peer pressure forces that work against boys – the fear of being thought of as a schoolboy, being mocked for doing work or looking smart. The girls don’t hold each other back in the same way, and therefore, are free to think, study, ask questions, and move forward.

    I woud love to see research that looks into the various cultural factors that affect math ability, and how they may impact the genders differently (i.e. what games kids play, what messages they receive from school/parents/media, what types of toys they are given, what types of books are written for them, etc. – and how do these differences affect mathematical reasoning?)

  3. Pingback: Casting Out Nines»Blog Archive » Update on AWM and Camilla Benbow