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Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Explaining the gender differences in top levels of math

Click the link - you won't regret it! There's a fascinating discussion on male/female differences in mathematical ability, particularly in how it relates to the very best in the world: Fields medalists, Putnam competition winners, even professors at the top research universities.

The premise of the article is that it's simple statistics. With a slightly higher mean and higher variance, when you select people in the far far right tail of the distribution, those with mathematical abilities that far outstrip mine, they are much more likely to be part of the group with the greater variance.

An example that might be clearer to the casual reader is to compare state lotteries with the Big Game or Powerball multistate lotteries. (Apply a factor to the state lottery so that you start with the same minimum prize.) Both lotteries have the one huge prize that's difficult to win. But even so, the state lotteries have less variation, because they don't attract the jackpot-multiplying craze of a huge Powerball jackpot. If you find the percentage of jackpots that exceed $100 million, then increase the threshold, the percentage of those jackpots that are from the big games will increase.

(Via Dave Justus and The Corner)


At 1:48 AM, Blogger G. Bob said...

Interesting, but it still didn't prove anything other than there are more men in the upper range of math than women. I suspect that "nature vs. nurture" will continue until we can point to some "math gene" and say "ah-ha! The math gene is more often found in men! Now back to the kitchen you silly little things!" For me, I take the lesson taught by Jimmy the Greek and stay out of those discussions.

The greatest pessimist of all time was Mark Twain. Mark Twain was the true rationalist. Twain was a big believer that all of humanity was nothing more than sacks of meat, ruled by the impulses of the body. Nature made people mean and little, and anyone who believed different was fooling themselves. In contrast was a contemporary of Twain, Emperor Norton, who believed that a person could be anything they wanted to in this country. He believed in this so much that he declared himself Emperor of the United States. He was stark raving mad, but he died happy. Mark Twain died unhappy.

Living in a world where everyone believes they can achieve anything may not be sane, but it seems to beat the alternative. I suspect that our DNA holds the answers to our true selves, but I would rather believe that little girls can do just fine in math if they want to.

At 10:50 AM, Blogger Dave Justus said...

G Bob,

You entirely missed the point. Little girls can of course do math. And the average little girl has exactly the same chance of winning a Fields medal as the average little boy, virtually zero.

However, a slight difference in gender based aptitude (and even more signifigantly a greater degree of variation in males) means that at the extreme edge of the curve, the best of the best of the best, there will be more males than females.

For most of us, with fairly average math potential, males and females are pretty similar and hard work makes a bigger difference than our innate abilities. No matter how hard I were to work though, I would not be a Fields medalist, I don't have enough aptitude for it (neither would I be an Olympic Sprinter)

At 3:01 AM, Blogger Greg said...

Since I didn't intuitely grasp calculus, I'm sure I too lack the ability to compete for the Fields medal. Since I was always one of the slowest runners in gym class, I'm sure I lack the ability to be an Olympic track star.

It's fine for people to believe they can achieve anything, but it's one thing to believe you can succeed in a technical field, versus believing you can be the absolute best.


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