Friday, August 19, 2011

Opinions are relative

Two friends were arguing over nature vs nurture.  As we all know, asking whether a trait is caused by social or inherent factors is a bad question.  All the same, we can ask similar questions which are good questions, or at least passable questions.

Let's consider how women do in, say, math.  There are more men who study math than women, at least in the US.  How much of this gap would remain if we somehow cleared the slate of social constructions?  Would women participate just as much, and do equally well as men, or might there still be a gap in one direction or the other?*  And how big would this gap be?

*Google's answer was this article.  No comment.

One friend started talking about abuses of evopsych.  He's seen lots of people blithely constructing just-so evolutionary stories to explain why male/female mathematical differences are innate.  He's seen questionable explanations for why homophobia is adaptive, or why men are naturally doms and women subs.  My friend accepts the possibility that a few of these narratives can be true, but how often they are stated without evidence in order to justify our prejudices!

The other friend started going on about postmodernism.  He's met many postmodernists in liberal arts departments who absolutely insist that everything is only a social construction.  Women have exactly the same mathematical aptitude, and any difference is proof positive of a biased culture.  Everyone is really fluid/bisexual and genderfluid; our identities are just a social construction. If science provides an evolutionary explanation for some particular trait, that's just another narrative with no more reality than the narratives provided by religion or political ideologies.

(The above conversation is based on a true story, but details are not factual.)

As for myself, I was struck by this perfect example of how we think of opinions in relative terms.

Questions of nature vs nurture have a spectrum of answers.  Unless we get into specifics, it is difficult to express our opinions in absolute terms.  So instead we express them, and think of them, in relative terms.  "I lean towards nature."  "I lean towards nurture."  But to talk of "leaning" one direction or the other, we have to specify a center.  And where is the center?

We could define the center to be wherever the correct position lies.  If so, I believe I'm in the center, and you believe you're in the center.  At least one of us is wrong (I think it's you).

Or we could define the center to be where popular opinion lies.  But we seem to have such divergent views of where that is.  One friend had bad experiences with liberal arts professors.  The other had bad experiences with libertarian blog commenters.  It's funny how a scientific issue, when discussed in casual conversation, gets reduced down to personal experiences.  And when we get an impression of popular opinion, it usually comes down to less than a dozen specific examples, completely fraught with selective biases.  It has to do with where we live, who we hang out with, and where we get our news.  Sometimes our beliefs really do hang on a string.

Not to say that both sides are equally right or any such nonsense.  Obviously I lean towards nurture.