Saturday, February 28, 2009

C'mon guys - social construct theory is unscientific

There's a little item in today's Herald Sun which is more politically significant than it might seem.

US scientists have conducted tests which measure neuron activity in the brain; they found that women use both the left and right side of the brain to perceive spatial awareness, but that men only use the right side.

What effect does this have? According to the scientists, men have a more focused spatial awareness, which is described in the article as a "more exact form of mental mapping". This is termed a "co-ordinate" spatial awareness.

Women have a "categorical" spatial awareness in which they are more aware of objects around them even if they are irrelevant to the task at hand.

These scientific findings do seem to fit some typical male and female qualities. Men do seem to focus more intently when it comes to understanding and creating systems, whereas women are often more present in the moment for those around them (yes, these are generalisations which don't hold true in every case).

A psychology professor from the University of Sydney, Dianna Kenny, added that the surface of a man's parietal lobe, which is responsible for spatial ability was 10 per cent bigger than women's and that levels of testosterone also seemed to improve spatial ability (so that women with higher levels of testosterone also have higher spatial ability).

Professor Kenny suggested that the spatial ability of men often made them better at tasks such as putting together module furniture or setting up VCRs and also made men more suited to certain careers such as cartography, engineering, surveying and IT.

Why is all this so politically significant? On the one hand, liberals will dislike the scientific findings. Liberals want us to be autonomous, self-defining individuals. Therefore, they want to believe that our sex, the fact of being born a man or a woman, can be made not to matter. For this reason, they usually prefer to explain sex distinctions between men and women as being artificial social constructs, set up for purposes of domination and oppression.

On the other hand, liberals like to think of themselves as being scientific types. They generally look down on those who don't accept a scientific world view.

So here is the conundrum for liberals. Science is telling them that there are significant hard-wired differences between men and women. If they reject the science, they are joining the ranks of those they have looked down on for so long.

If they accept the science, then they have to admit that the social construct theory wasn't correct - that sex distinctions can't be explained in terms of social influence alone, but that they do have some legitimate basis in human nature.

(I can't find a link to the Herald Sun post yet, but there is a report along similar lines here.)


  1. I think most people today accept that its a combination of nature and nurture.

  2. Leon, I agree that there are some who are beginning to add in caveats when they talk about social constructs, along the lines that "I'm not someone who completely ignores physiological differences".

    But the social construct theory still rules. In Sweden a few years ago Jens Orback, a minister in the government, announced that,

    "The government considers female and male as social constructions, that means gender patterns are created by upbringing, culture, economic conditions, power structures and political ideology."

    Will Jens Orback now make an announcement along the lines that,

    "Due to advances in scientific research the Swedish government considers male and female to be legitimate categories with a basis in a given human nature. We will respect the fact that this will produce some distinctions in the behaviour and choices of men and women."

    That's what we ought to get to if we really accept the science. I don't think we're there yet.

  3. Well the Swedish are particularly 'progressive'. Australia on the other hand elected John Howard as their PM 4 times in a row.

    Still, the official government position holding that gender is purely social is disturbing, particularly since its such an untenable position.

  4. But the social construct theory still rules. In Sweden a few years ago Jens Orback, a minister in the government, announced that,

    This actually sets a precedent.

    Will Jens Orback now make an announcement along the lines that

    Don't mock him. Government basing itself on the findings of science would be a welcome development. It's just that so far the science they've relied on has been faulty.