More male geniuses?

// 18 October 2007

There are more male geniuses than female geniuses – and more extremely stupid men than stupid women, according to research reported in the Daily Mail.

I say reported, but actually I mean: “leapt on with glee by the Daily Mail”. Let’s consider the newspaper’s lede:

A team of psychologists – admittedly, all male psychologists – at Edinburgh University has made a discovery which, for many of us, will not be very surprising. That is, that the number of super-intelligent men is double that of super-intelligent women. In the brightest two per cent of the population, there are two men to every one woman.

Without even getting into the research conducted by these psychologists, I think it’s worth noting the gloating tone adopted by the Daily Mail – after all, here are some scientists come to bolster some of their most dearly-held views!

Indeed, it is hard to comment on the actual research – Edinburgh University has not yet put up a press release about it, I can find no other stories reporting it and the Daily Mail barely touches on it – using it, instead, as an excuse to trot out ill defended, sweeping generalisations which are no doubt utterly unsupported by this contemporary work.

But the Edinburgh psychologists have tested 2,500 brothers and sisters, all brought up to have the same high expectations, and given them tests in science, maths, English and mechanical ability. They have discovered that women tend to be better at languages.

My initial thoughts are that this test, from this little information available, is utterly flawed. The Daily Mail says that brothers and sisters will be brought up with the same expectations. In some regards, this is supported: wealthier families may bring up their children with different expectations out of life – and more resources to cultivate their talents – than poorer families. But it completely ignores the wider social pressures that see girls’ limited and stereotyped in their aspirations from day one when we find ourselves dressed in pink babygros. As the load of tripe that the Daily Mail rolls out in this story so aptly illustrates, people are generally unaware of the achievements of women in science, literature and other fields where they may prove their intelligence.

The journalist states as fact:

Yet the stubborn facts of history remain. Very few truly original scientific discoveries have been made by women. There are no women geniuses in physics or mathematics to rival Newton or Einstein.

I defer to Distingished Women for a list of female inventors – many of their achievements are not at all noted today. It is also worth considering that, in historical terms, in most of the world, women have had limited access to education. According to its website, Oxford University only began admitting women in 1920. Of the two examples of inventive men given by the Daily Mail, Newton died nearly 200 years before the first woman graduated with a degree from Oxford.

Dame Ethel Smyth, a slightly risible old lesbian, wrote some symphonies, but there is no symphonic music by women to match the sublime works of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms or Shostakovich.

No comment necessary, surely, on the dismissive (homophobic, ageist) comment made here, or the implication that Smyth is the only woman ever to have composed a symphony. Again, see Dintinguished Women for some correction.

There are no great women poets. None at all. Even though women have occupied an important role in the English theatre since the time of the Restoration of Charles II, there are no works of drama by women which can match Shakespeare, Chekhov or Racine.

In literature, I am on firm enough ground to refute this with a list of my own. Do I even need to point out that Jane Austen is as revered (and probably read with more frequency and pleasure) as Shakespeare? In terms of poetry, what about Elizabeth Browning or Christina Rossetti or Emily Dickenson? And that isn’t even straying into the 20th century, when feminism has opened so many more doors for women to prove their literary chops, or outside of the English-speaking world.

It is clear that the person who wrote this story has created a carefully selected list of men, deliberately eliding – as so many have done before – the contribution of women to all fields of human knowledge, many times racking up these achievements in spite of a tide of convention and social rules which their male colleagues never experienced. Shame on the Daily Mail for publishing it. I really do hate to make this comparison, but would it be considered acceptable for the Daily Mail to publish a similar list noting the relative lack of inventors of colour? Obviously, clearly not, as it would be dismissed as racist propoganda. So why did this misogynist propoganda make it into the newspaper?

(Thanks to RP for the heads up)

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