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The Impossible Measure of "Dimness"

Charlotte Allen's sexist article in the Washington Post revives 19th century racist research on brain size.
By: Rhonda Roland Shearer
March 03, 2008 12:00 AM EST
 
The Impossible Measure of "Dimness"
 
 

If the Washington Post uses low standardized test scores as evidence for innate female “dimness,” is the same argument for African-Americans' inferiority far behind?

This is not meant to be just a provocative question. Washington Post columnist Charlotte Allen’s article “We Scream, We Swoon. How Dumb Can We Get?” (March 2, 2008) actually employs logic used in debunked 19th century science that argued larger brain size “proved” the intellectual superiority of the “Caucasian Race” to support her claim of women’s inherent inferiority.

Allen writes, “The theory that women are the dumber sex – or at least the sex that gets into more car accidents – is amply supported by neurological and standardized-testing evidence. Men's and women's brains not only look different, but men's brains are bigger than women's (even adjusting for men's generally bigger body size).”

What Allen does not mention is that the pseudoscience corelating brain size to intelligence – a study known as craniometry – began in the 19th century with researchers Samuel George Morton, Louis Agassiz, and Paul Broca.

The late, great authority on the topic, Stephen Jay Gould (full disclosure; my late husband) dealt with this issue of biology-as-destiny years ago in his seminal book, The Mismeasure of Man. In part, his book showed how Morton manipulated the results of his research to support his biases that Native Americans were “slow in acquiring knowledge” and that “the Negro” was “indolent.”

The reality is that if you treat any person—male or female—as “dumb” or a “bad driver,” you can pre-determine diminished performance through self-fulfilling prophecy. Where is the line drawn between nature and nurture?

In terms of intelligence, society (“nurture”) can keep a young woman from realizing her full potential by discouraging education, funding and sending her negative social cues – i.e. through respected news outlets like the Washington Post – slandering her as “dumb” and inherently not as good as males.


Rhonda R. Shearer 1993,
Union Square Park, New York City
George Washington is surrounded by eight monumental size woman housework.
Yves's Wife with Baby, 1991-92(detail)
Bronze(Lost wax, Fabrication), 103"x100"x30" Click image to enlarge.
As a sculptor, I called attention to how even New York City sends these damaging messages to girls in how public art is commissioned. Of the hundreds of monuments erected throughout the city, only three depict real women: Gertrude Stein, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Joan of Arc. The giant Alice in Wonderland is hardly a role model.

The truth is that scientists have no way of determining exactly which plays a greater role in shaping intelligence – education or genetics. It is impossible to measure how messages like this affect a young woman’s intellectual choices or performance.

When such a measurement can be done, Ms. Allen, then get back to me. Meanwhile, our moral and social duty is to create an even playing field for all people. We can never tell in advance who will be the African-American or girl genius, until all individuals are encouraged to excel in advanced mathematics or the fine arts.

Ms. Allen’s clearly projects her own self-loathing on to the rest of us when she writes, “Then we could shriek and swoon and gossip and read chick lit to our hearts' content and not mind the fact that way down deep, we are [as women, clarification mine]… kind of dim.”

She describes successful women in a hostile and patronizing tone, writing, “Yes, they can do their jobs and do them well, and I don't think anyone should put obstacles in their paths. I predict that over the long run, however, even with all the special mentoring and role-modeling the 21st century can provide, the number of women in these fields will always lag behind the number of men, for good reason.”

And of course, she also resorts to a familiar stereotype by saying that women excel at “tenderness toward children and men and the weak and the ability to make a house a home.” The sad truth is that society not only depicts women as “mere” housekeepers, but it also degrades women –or men--who stay at home as a domestic worker.

I wrote in my “Woman’s Work” traveling museum exhibition catalogue (1993-1995):

“In my sculpture series ‘Woman’s Work,’ I depicted large scale images of motherhood and housework in heroic size, as are our most sacred monuments. My immediate fear was that to connect myself with these public images of women’s work would somehow devalue me by association because of the lack of ‘importance’ of these roles. Was I out of my mind? Wouldn’t it be better to associate myself with career and traits that are socially valued?

“After all, there are no Nobel Prizes for housework, but there I was, with my images of women from my childhood, women I know now, and (even more threatening) the woman I am.”

If our social biases of devaluing women are nurtured, as done in Allen’s article, not only will all members of a group be treated as a faceless and diminished sum, but self-fulfilling prophecy will rule. Instead viewing individuals who happen to be girls, or people of color, as deserving of equal rights and opportunities, the belief in innate dimness will surely generate more of what we expect.

Update 03/03/08 10:27pm by Adam Klasfeld

We informed Charlotte Allen by email that Rhonda Roland Shearer had published an article showing that her late husband Stephen Jay Gould had debunked craniometry "science" and exposed its racist origins.  At the end of our letter, we invited her to respond.

Allen replied just over an hour later:

"I'm a great admirer of Stephen Jay Gould, but I can't comment on research of his that I've haven't read. Since he's been dead for a few years, I'm assuming his analysis was done sometime during the 80s or 90s on the basis of crude older studies that closely pegged intelligence to relative skull measurement(craniotomy) and were very likely racist, or at least not very scientific. More recent studies rely on the more sophisticated magnetic-resonance imaging (MRI) techniques that actually allow one to "see" the brain rather than guess its size based on the size of the skull. It's incontrovertible that men's brains are relatively larger than women even when the measurements are adjusted for body size. One leading such study is Jill Goldstein's "Normal Sexual Dimorphism of the Adult Human Brain Assessed by In Vivo Magnetic Resonance Imaging," published in the journal Cerebral Cortex in 2001. There, Goldstein and her research team found that men have proportionately larger parietal lobes, which are associated with the mental manipulation of objects and relation of numbers to each other."

Although we sent her a link to our piece, Allen confessed that she did not read it because she was too busy sorting through sometimes "obscene" emails critiquing her piece.

Had she taken the time to peruse it, she would have seen that Stephen Jay Gould (whom she professes to admire) argues that there is no correlation between brain size and intelligence. In fact, The Mismeasure of Man devotes nearly three pages to "Small-Brained Men of Eminence," demonstrating that literary greats like Whitman and Turgenev had exceedingly light gray matter. On the other hand, he found numerous instances of "Large-Brained Criminals," which is the title of another section of his book.

Even her own reference to Goldstein's paper cited in her email does not prove her point that men's bigger brains correlate to a superior intellect.  In fact, it says that the male and female participants were selected because they were of similar intelligence. The abstract of the paper reads, "The men and women were similar in age, education, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, general intelligence and handedness."

In face of the public backlash against the article, Washington Post editor John Pomfret is already in damage control mode, claiming that it was misunderstood "satire." "Perhaps it wasn’t packaged well enough to make it clear that it was tongue-in-cheek," Pomfret stated. Providing a citation to prove that you're right is not in the playbook of "kidding," even if the "evidence" is laughably mis-selected.

Update 03/04/08 6:14pm by Adam Klasfeld

In another email reply, Allen continues to defend her citation, stating, "I think the idea is that the extra male brain size goes to parts of the brain good for visual-spatial skills."

Yet again, this is a selective misreading of her own scientific data.  Yvonne Kao, a graduate student of cognitive psychology and author of the blog "Thought Bubbles," demolishes her arguments in her post "A Neuroscience Lesson for Charlotte Allen."

Perhaps a scientific refutation of an ill-informed and misogynistic rant lends it more credibility than it deserves. However, Social Darwinist arguments about racial and sexual superiority have a tendency of popping up regularly in the press. The record needs to be set straight. Otherwise, internationally respected news outlets will continue to lend dusty and damaging theories undue validity.

 

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Man, written by a woman no doubt. That is a great article......

Comment by Yammel | Jul 30, 2008 at 02:19 PM EST

Charlotte Allen should read this new debunking of an old myth about girls and math...See

" Math study finds girls are just as good as boys" by By LIBBY QUAID, AP Education Writer. She writes,"In the largest study of its kind, girls measured up to boys in every grade, from second through 11th. The research was released Thursday in the journal Science."


Comment by Rhonda R Shearer | Jul 25, 2008 at 01:56 PM EST

You didn't exactly deny the story - you just said it was debilitating to women.

Comment by Brian Ross | Jul 16, 2008 at 05:15 PM EST

Thanks for your comment. I though the fact that I stated that the science Allen refers to is "pseudoscience" got that very point across. But maybe that reference was too subtle. I am sorry if it did not convey strongly enough that Allen is plain wrong about females' smaller brain size determining lesser smarts in comparison to males. I wrote: " What Allen does not mention is that the pseudoscience corelating brain size to intelligence – a study known as craniometry – began in the 19th century with researchers Samuel George Morton, Louis Agassiz, and Paul Broca."

Comment by Rhonda R Shearer | Jul 20, 2008 at 07:40 PM EST

The writer seems to be overly concerned here with "fairness" and too little with fact. Men have bigger brains, pound for pound so to speak, and they are vastly overrepresented in the higher reaches of the human IQ range, indeed the higher one goes, the thinner exponentially is the female presence. This is borne out empirically by the the almost total male dominance in higher mathematics and chess. So what? We're talking vast groups here numbering in the billions. It has little or no relevance to any individual. If you're smart you're smart, if you're dumb you're dumb irrespective what group you fall into through accident of birth.

The handwringing about African-Americans is quite beside the point as Ms allen didn't address it at all and therefore it is an attempt to diminish her by association with "racism". Of course, it is not racist, though it may be used for such purposes, to state that Blacks do very significantly worse in IQ testing that Whites. This is a fact: 85 as opposed to 100 average score. There are of course umpteen exceptions but that's what they are exceptions. This holds true regardless of background, economic status of parents etc etc.

You may wish it otherwise, I know I do, - as we all wish to be taller, better-looking, smarter, or have neighbours who have a quieter dog - but neither you nor I are racists for stating a truth. We are merely people who wish to leave behind a better world for our children and know that the only way to make it better is to admit the reality with which we are forced to grapple. Refusing to do this is the one sure way of ensuring that those at the bottom of the heap will stay there while we all congratulate ourselves on how fairminded and well-meaning we are. As regards reaching instinctively for the "racist" slur, the one way to make things worse is to insult those who are equally concerned for their fellow man but have moved beyond the pieties which they also found so comforting but in which alas they can no longer believe.

Comment by Liam Hodder | Mar 7, 2008 at 02:46 PM EST

My main point was not fairness. There is simply no scientific basis for larger brain size predicting intelligence. If it were true, only the people with the largest brains would be at the top of every field. In fact, this is known to be wrong. Larger head size is of concern in children as it linked to autism. My larger point was: since we are incapable of measuring the difference between nature and nurture, or even what intelligence is, we can not possibly or meaningfully link these factors, that we can not quantify, to large group statistics. How many super sucessful people did poorly on SAT tests? Yet this test is misused in our culture as reflecting smarts when it was only ever meant to predict first year college performance. Phyllis Rosser has done fine work on this topic.

For society or Allen to make false large group distinctions and negative generalizations based on inaccurate references to science, as Allen has provably done, we just end up punishing all individuals in a particualr group, and society itself . But more importantly, the predetermination or judgement of a particular woman through the general lens that women as a group are not as smart as men, damns all women. It is irrational and has no basis in science.

By the way, where did you get your "facts"? (From David Duke?) You write: "Blacks do very significantly worse in IQ testing that Whites. This is a fact: 85 as opposed to 100 average score." This is completely false.


Comment by Rhonda R. Shearer | Mar 7, 2008 at 05:05 PM EST

Exactly who is the author? What are her credentials, her history, her relationships? I'm not the least bit interested in reading her piece, it was bad enough reading about it, but if she's defending the science behind her work and the editor is asserting that it's satire, the contradiction makes me think they're both lying. But why?

Comment by julimac | Mar 4, 2008 at 04:35 PM EST

Something that people who listened to Mom don't know, or find difficult to understand (don't all Moms say "tell the truth, it's easier" )... the editors and writer are obviously not keeping their stories straight. Additionally, I am sure they are worried about keeping their heads from rolling.

Comment by Rhonda R. Shearer | Mar 4, 2008 at 06:47 PM EST

Please let us know what you think? I can't remember a more hurtful and distressing public statement of sexism supported by an important and trusted institution , such as the Wash Post, in the last 25 years.

Comment by Rhonda R. Shearer | Mar 4, 2008 at 04:32 AM EST

Thank you, Rhonda R. Shearer. Although I sent an email response to the Washington Post expressing my indignation (both at the latest Charlotte Allen screed, and at an earlier ignorant piece on living wills), I'm afraid that any attention to it just encourages it. It's so disturbing that a major newspaper would allow such rot.

Comment by Dee Dee | Mar 4, 2008 at 09:45 AM EST

Thanks for your comment. I really did some soul seaching before wriitng this piece. Its not hard to imagine that part of the motive of Wash. Post 's stomp on the ant hill was based in ambitions for increased web traffic. That said, I was conflicted about adding to the fray. I felt manipulated by commercial interests and wanted to ignore it as I would a bad child.

However, the seriousness of this attack against women I finally reasoned could not be ignored due to its source of a major national paper. I am so sad that years of hard won advances feel like the game "Shoots and Ladders" where I have just slid back to "start." I am grieving too that my daughter now almost 30 years old, with two young children and a third on the way is a witness of the ugly self loathing writ large. Make no mistake. This is a threat. I am still thinking about what more to do or be done.

Comment by Rhonda R. Shearer | Mar 4, 2008 at 03:30 PM EST

Thank you so much for giving a beautiful response to her misguided editorial. I read it and was incredibly shocked that something considered a respectable news outlet would publish something as incredibly offensive as that. I was very upset and offended Someone needs to bear the responsibility of this and quit making excuses.

Comment by Christine Daley | Mar 5, 2008 at 07:39 PM EST

The Washington Post has continued to post her irresponsible journalism on their site allowing her a discussion venue where she mocks the individuals who gave thoughtful responses to her hateful diatribe.

I feel as though this individual has lost the privilige of writing for a living. No one is taking the blame for this, and they continue to make it out as a joke..link

here:www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/discussion/2008/03/04/DI2008030402153.html

Comment by Christine Daley | Mar 5, 2008 at 07:55 PM EST

Thanks for your comments and posting the link. I agree with you. I carefully read the exchanges. People who destroy her arguments, meet with her veering from providing any direct answer. Shame on the Washington Post for such emptiness of purpose --call it empty calories journalism. All buzz and web traffic . This is a long way --down--from Watergate...

Comment by Rhonda R. Shearer | Mar 7, 2008 at 05:40 PM EST

The large brain size = intelligence notion (not a "theory") is seductive because it plays into innate biases and heuristics that usually work: larger muscles usually mean greater strength. But the silliness of Charlotte Allen's is easily debunked with common sense, and without even having to resort to reading the scientific literature (which can be daunting for non-scientists). Try this thought experiment. Clearly there are some children who are more intelligent than some adults, and yet they have smaller brains! What's going on here? The brain size = intelligence is not tenable. Now, if you do want to venture into the scientific literature, even using the MRI research, there is still no support for Allen's crazy idea. I do MRI studies for a living and the variability of brain size, structure, and anatomy within a group (such as men or women, blacks or whites) is so great as to swamp any intergroup variability.

Comment by Dr. Daniel J. Levitin | Jul 11, 2008 at 10:05 AM EST

Quack

Comment by DeRosser | Aug 4, 2008 at 02:56 AM EST

I agree completely with your article. The loathsome sexism of Allen's piece is, I'm guessing, part of a larger design of hers to argue for the restriction of opportunity for all kinds of people she thinks are "inferior" or otherwise "unworthy" of social investment. Today it's women; tomorrow -- who knows? Blacks, gays, Jews... the sky's the limit. I'm afraid that if this kind of thing is ignored, it cracks the door open a little wider for racism, homophobia and anti-semitism to come along for the party. If it becomes commonplace to blithely pronounce women constitutionally "stupid," how hard is it to make the same argument for other people (ethnic minorities, sexual minorities, religious minorities, other nationalities etc. etc.). Of course those arguments are being made all the time by fringe lunatics, but then they don't get published in the pages of major national newspapers. Now the editor is trying to claim it was "satire." If this is his idea of satire, then he needs a new job.

Comment by Clare | Mar 4, 2008 at 10:59 AM EST

I wholly agree that there should be consequences resulting from this black eye to a once trusted national news outlet. Unless corrective action is taken by Wash Post management, I , for one, will no longer trust or respect them. Thank you for taking the time to write a comment.


Comment by Rhonda R. Shearer | Mar 4, 2008 at 03:54 PM EST
 
 
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