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The Gender Gap in STEM fields and the Nature of Science

If ink was blood, the discussion of the lack of women in STEM fields would exsanguinate the whole of the human species. Yet for all the talk, the problem remains. Why? Let me answer that by bringing to your attention a post by Dr. Janet Stemwedel, a professor of philosophy at San José State University who writes on this and other topics concerning the thinking underlying how science is done. The post is not long, so I will post most of it here, you may find the original here. To clarify the post in case it doesn’t come across clearly: she quotes a block of text discussing the gender gap in the sciences and then provides her response to it.

However, there are times when people seem to lose the thread when they spin their causal stories. For example:

“The point of focusing on innate psychological differences is not to draw attention away from anti-female discrimination. The research clearly shows that such discrimination exists—among other things, women seem to be paid less for equal work. Nor does it imply that the sexes have nothing in common. Quite frankly, the opposite is true. Nor does it imply that women—or men—are blameworthy for their attributes.

Rather, the point is that anti-female discrimination isn’t the only cause of the gender gap. As we learn more about sex differences, we’ve built better theories to explain the non-identical distribution of the sexes among the sciences. Science is always tentative, but the latest research suggests that discrimination has a weaker impact than people might think, and that innate sex differences explain quite a lot.”

What I’m seeing here is a claim that amounts to “there would still be a gender gap in the sciences even if we eliminated anti-female discrimination” — in other words, that the causal powers of innate sex differences would be enough to create a gender gap.

To this claim, I would like to suggest:

1. that there is absolutely no reason not to work to eliminate anti-female discrimination; whether or not there are other causes that are harder to change, such discrimination seems like something we can change, and it has negative effects on those subject to it;

2. that is is an empirical question whether, in the absence of anti-female discrimination, there would still be a gender gap in the sciences; given the complexity of humans and their social structures, controlled studies in psychology are models of real life that abstract away lots of details*, and when the rubber hits the road in the real phenomena we are modeling, things may play out differently.

Let’s settle the question of how much anti-female discrimination matters by getting rid of it.

Dr. Stemwedel hits directly on a error that is seen throughout every facet of social interactions, to say nothing of public understanding of science. The discussion had strayed into unproductive areas and away from any attempt to resolve the problem. Dr. Stemwedel attempted to bring the focus back to the problem needing to be solved.

In this instance, going back to the original post to which Dr. Stemwedel was responding, the initial question put to Neil DeGrasse Tyson was “Why are there fewer women in science?” The true answer to that question is that there are multiple reasons for the gender gap, one of which happens to be that there is a clear discriminatory bias against women in science (this fact is so well documented that linking to only one or two articles seems pointless as a quick Google search will immediately turn up a very long list of sources). Tyson did not deny there were other factors, but he focused on the sociological aspect as that problem is highly prevalent and something that can be changed.

Chris Martin, the author of the post Dr. Stemwedel was responding to, goes to great lengths to talk about all the other issues involved in the gender gap, ignoring the reason Tyson focused on the sociologic aspect. Contrary to the claims of Mr. Martin, the point was indeed to draw attention away from anti-female discrimination. He clearly states in his post that he believes evolutionary pressures explain the gender gap better than sociological ones and that the sociological factors are therefore unimportant. His whole post is a response to the assertion that this bias prevents many women from entering the field.

Faculty ratings of applications that were exactly the same except for sex of applicant.

Faculty ratings of applications that were exactly the same except for sex of applicant.

Unfortunately for Mr. Martin, the evolutionary factors Mr. Martin espoused are not as well understood and nowhere near as well documented in humans as is the discrimination against women. But here is the important thing: We can’t do anything about past evolutionary pressures. We CAN do something about the discrimination.  No one is arguing there aren’t other reasons. But if you want to solve the problem, you focus on the aspects of the problem you can fix.

This problem in thinking is so widespread, one could easily argue that everyone does it. Certainly, unless taught to do otherwise, everyone does indeed make this mistake. In all of science and engineering, there is one basic rule that is critically important you must do: clearly define the problem in terms that can be dealt with. You have to be able to understand the problem in clear enough terms that you can parse out what things are relevant from those that are not. In this case, claiming there are evolutionary pressures is irrelevant to the problem of reducing the gender gap. We know that anti-female discrimination occurs. We know it is widespread. Of all the problems that Mr. Martin mentioned, this is the one that most obviously lends itself to resolution because it involves behaviors that the vast majority of people can agree on that needs to end. Unless one can reasonably expect to fix evolutionary pressures, distracting attention from the problem that can be solved is counterproductive. The good news is that when people do focus on the problems, things can and have gotten better. We still have a long ways to go, but it is improving.

resized_the-most-interesting-man-in-the-world-meme-generator-i-don-t-always-state-the-problem-clearly-but-when-i-do-it-is-half-solved-already-75c417The point of this post is not really to argue about anti-female discrimination in science, although that is a hugely important topic and something that every teacher needs to be aware of and help to stop. The real point of this post is to highlight the importance of knowing your question well enough and clearly enough that you can make progress on answering it, solving the problem. This particular topic just happens to allow me to highlight two really important topics at the same time. The next post will cover some more vitally important mistakes in thinking that anyone trying to teach the nature of science, and really, any other subject, needs to understand so you can work hard on helping your students overcome them.


3D: It’s Not Just for Movie Theaters

Jim Lane is talking about something that has been on the mind of a lot of education researchers lately. If you read much in the way of education literature at all, I am sure you will have run across many a discussion of how to improve learning by engaging the students with materials they find interesting and challenging them to solve relevant problems in a creative manner. Doing that means moving beyond the simple worksheets and memorization. It means using the newly available tools to bring the material to life and having the students work on, as one of Mr. Lane’s students called it, the edge of science.

Some of those new tools are in the realm of 3D scanning and modelling. This has allowed many museums and researchers to put some of their work online in a way that allows much more interaction than simple photos. You can, for instance, examine the head of a 2,200-year-old Chinese terracotta warrior housed at the Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s Mausoleum Site Museum or skeletons in an underwater cave from the comfort of your own home. This has great benefits for conservation and research, allowing digital preservation of fragile artifacts and researchers from all over the world to view the objects without having to spend the money to physically examine them. Much of the time, researchers will still want to see the real thing, but there are numerous studies that can be done with only the scanned images. There is even some research that can only be done on the scanned items, making the scans in a way, more important than the item itself. More to the point here, 3D scanning also opens up the object to viewing by people the world over, the vast majority of whom will never have the chance to visit the museum and see the real item.

So where can you see some of these items? There are several places on the net you can go. Here we will focus on those useful for evolutionary topics, such as fossils and anatomy (comparative anatomy with modern organisms is the heart of paleontological research). Many of the sites allow you to download the scans and print them out if you have access to a 3D printer, which are becoming increasingly common as the prices drop down to the point many individuals can buy their own and schools are starting to make them available to their students. Be warned, interactive 3D elements generally take a lot of graphics computation, so try to limit any other graphics you have up, i.e. close other browser windows, don’t try running a game in the background, the general rules of using a program with a lot of graphics. But as long as you have an up-to-date browser with Quicktime and Java, most computers these days should be able to handle it just fine (although a warning about Java, the security updates in the past year or so have made the more recent versions of java incompatible with earlier versions, so unless the developer for the site has updated their program, it may not work).

The following sites are in no particular order, so with that in mind, the first place on this list you might want to visit is Smithsonian X 3D, a website the Smithsonian recently put up showcasing objects from their collection they have scanned. At the moment, there is not a lot, but the site is new and they will be adding much more as they go along, so be sure to check back regularly. Right now, you can see 3D images of whale fossils, a mammoth, a blue crab, an orchid, a bee, and several other historical objects. Included in the collection is a scan of President Obama, the first ever 3D Presidential portrait. The basic 3D viewer is easy to use, although a few of the more advanced controls are not altogether intuitive. The website provides a brief description of each item, along with articles and videos on some of the items and the process of scanning them, including a page for educators on the use of the objects in the classroom. The Smithsonian also has more 3D collections on their human origins site. You might think that they would only have human fossils, but they have much more. You can certainly find hominid fossils, but along with them are numerous primates from Aye-Ayes to gorillas, and a large variety of other animals, from bears and cheetahs to komodo dragons and vultures. While you are there, you can a diverse array of information on human evolution, including teacher guides, lesson plans, multimedia, current research, everything you need to teach a human origins unit.

Another place you will want to check out is the Visual Interactive Anatomy pages by Dr. Lawrence Witmer at Ohio University. He and his students spend a lot of time scanning fossils and modern animals using a medical CT scanner at nearby O’Bleness Hospital or a micro-CT scanner on campus. They have put together several pages that illustrate the anatomy of several modern animals, including an opossum and the heads of a human, rhino, iguana, alligator hatchling, and ostrich. They have also collaborated with Dr. Casey Holliday on an adult alligator. The adult alligator page even has individual pages for every bone in the skull. On these pages, you will find interactive 3D pdfs and videos of the scans and reconstructions, which have a variety of structures labeled, identifying the bones, brain cavity, nasal passages, etc. In addition, you will find news and behind the scenes excerpts, and links to the published research on the specimens. On the 3D Visualizations page, you will find similar movies and 3D pdfs for a variety of dinosaurs (including Tyrannosaurus rex, Majungasaurus, and Euoplocephalus, along with several birds) and mammals from the platypus to deer to Archaeotherium, one of the group of animals often called “terror pigs”.

A website that is sure to grow is the NIH 3D Print Exchange. This site allows people to share their own 3D files for other people to download and use. The website focuses on biomedical applications, but currently you can find a variety of brains, bones, molecules, DIY lab equipment, and more. The more part I am sure will grow as people explore the site and add their own models. You can also find tutorials for making your own 3D models using 3D visualization software, and links to open source software such as Blender, FreeCAD, and Google Sketchup, as well as 3D printing services such as i.materialize and Makexyz and others.

Digimorph, or more properly Digital Morphology, a National Science Foundation Digital Library, is a site run by the CT facility at the University of Texas at Austin, one of the premier CT facilities in the country and the primary place American paleontologists go to get their fossils scanned. Digimorph provides access to these scans for the public and researchers the world over. On this site, you can find videos of scans and 3D reconstructions, some of which can be downloaded for 3D printing, for hundreds of animals, including a variety of avian and non-avian dinosaurs, along with extinct and modern species of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, and even plants, coral,  crustaceans and other invertebrates. Along with the scans and 3D reconstructions, you can find descriptions of each specimen, a bibliography of research published on them, and links to useful sites for software, information on CT scanning, and other related sites. The downside to the site is they provide nothing specific for educators and the specimens that have downloadable 3D renderings are a small fraction of the total specimens available in video form, and none of them of the dinosaurs, which are only available as video animations. Nevertheless, for sheer quantity of 3D images for a diversity of animals, there is no place better.

The final site on the list is swiftly becoming the place to go for virtual fossils.GB3D Type Fossils Online project, or simply GB3D, is a website run by the British Geological Survey, Amgueddfa Cymru (National Museum of Wales), Oxford University Museum of Natural History, and the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences. As the name suggests, the site is a repository for information of “type” fossils. If you don’t know what a “type” is, they have a handy guide explaining the different types. In this case, they aren’t talking about what kind of fossil it is, but things like holotypes, fossils designated in the original description of the fossil, which all others are compared to, which make them very important to scientists studying those kinds of fossils. If you want to see United Kingdom fossils, this is the place to go. They have hundreds of fossils in 3D and hundreds more in 2D. On this site, you will find a great diversity of plants and animals with high quality photographs, many of them also have stereophotos (get your 3D glasses with those red and blue lenses) and 3D models. In addition, you will find information about the fossil, such as what it is, when and where it was collected, how old it is, and contact information for the institution that holds the fossil itself. They also have a page describing the more commonly found fossils, all of which happen to be various invertebrates or fish. You will also find free programs used to view and work with 3D images you can download. They have available MeshLab, SPIERSview, and Adobe 3D Pdf Reader. Finally, you will also find links to a variety of educational resources for primary and secondary schools, universities, and the public.

Hang gliding in the Oauchita Mtns. Photo by

Hang gliding in the Oauchita Mtns. Photo by

If you want to inspire people to learn, you have to bring them right up to the edge of that knowledge cliff so they can peer over it at the wondrous space beyond, exposing them to the unknown in all its glorious mystery. Help them understand the foundations of the cliff, teach them how to build their own wings, and then push them off that cliff so they can soar into uncharted regions. When they return, they will have a better grasp of how the cliff is formed and what its boundaries are. They just might also find that cliff sticking out a little farther than when they flew off it. And when they do, you won’t have to push them, they will leap on their own. Of course, you will then have another problem: keeping up with your students. So keep your own wings in good repair. I do hope I have helped you build your wings a little stronger. If you know of any other sites that may be of use, please let us know in the comments section.

I will let Dr. Witmer finish this out and let him explain a bit about his projects and why approaches like this, particularly with dinosaurs, are useful educational tools.


Website Review and the Misconception of a Theory

In a quick review, I would like to discuss the website by Lin and Don Donn,

This website is part of a much larger website that is filled with a lot of information on all sorts of history. As Mr. Donn states, they do not claim to be experts in anything, so do not claim everything on the site is correct, although they do try. It is clear they have put a great deal of time and effort into making a substantial site with the honest intention of providing accurate and useful information to teachers. They have won awards for an impressive site. However, in the evolution of humans, they seriously fall down.

The early humans website has several links to good resources. Unfortunately, it has two things that destroy the science educational credibility of the site completely. The first is a link to a presentation teaching Biblical creationism, a subject that has no place in a public school as it is both scientifically invalid and pushes one specific religious view, which is illegal in the United States. Regardless of whether one believes in creationism or not, it is not legal to teach a specific religion in public schools and it is especially not valid to teach that religious view in a science class. The only way to make this legal would be to teach the creationism stories of every other religion equally, without comment as to which one the teacher believed, which would be impossible. Even then, it would have to be in a religious studies class, not a science class. If we are to preserve everyone’s First Amendment rights to freedom of religion, we simply cannot have government-run public schools teach one religious view and we certainly cannot teach that view as a scientifically valid theory. I am hitting this point especially hard because it is a serious point of controversy in the United States, but it should not be. Keeping creationism out of the schools is not an attempt to suppress anyone’s views. It is an attempt to preserve everyone’s right to make their own religious choices without government interference.

That leads me into the second problem, one which is stated boldly right up front. One of the big problems we have in science literacy is that many people do not understand the difference between the colloquial use of the term “theory” and the scientific meaning of the term. To quote the website: “A theory is a guess based on some facts.  Remember a theory is not proven.  One of the great controversies of our time has been the theory of evolution.” This is massively wrong in two areas.

The term they have defined is NOT a theory. What they defined was SPECULATION. Anyone can come up with an idea, but that does not make it a scientific theory. First, one must have a hypothesis, which is a testable idea, based on observation, that explains a relationship between two or more measurable things. There are two critical parts to this. The observations, so it must be an attempt to explain something we actually see in the real world. Second, that explanation must be testable. If there is no conceivable way to test it, the idea remains in the realm of speculation and can never be taken as a scientific theory, or even a valid hypothesis.


Great hypothesis, but not the way to do science.

Once one has a series of hypotheses that have been tested by many people, none of whom have been able to disprove the hypotheses, one can formulate a scientific theory. That theory ties the hypotheses together, explaining numerous detailed observations into an explanatory framework that applies broadly. An example of this is the Theory of Gravity. Numerous observations were made showing gravity exists, there is no doubt about that. Many observations showed precisely how it worked and the relationship of different masses to each other, both on earth and in the universe as a whole. However, to make a theory, we needed more than these observations, we needed a way to accurately describe and predict these relationships. Isaac Newton discovered a mathematical equation that could be used to predict the motions of the planets. That equation was then tested many times and found to be valid everywhere, at least at the speeds attained by most things in the universe. Einstein went further with his Theory of Relativity, which extended our understanding of gravity into realms beyond the experience of everyday existence. Even here, these started out as hypotheses, requiring many people to test over and over gain. Not only has no one been able to prove them wrong, but no one has come up with an explanation that better fits the data. Therein lies the key, testing and testing and basing the acceptance of the theory on data, evidence that either supports or disproves the theory. Without that, it is not a theory.


As such, there is no Law of Gravity. We know it exists, it is fact that is undeniable. The Theory of Gravity provides a framework in which gravity works that has been put to the test. In a similar fashion, there is no Law of Evolution. We know it exists, it is a fact that is undeniable. Why? Because the idea that biological life forms change over time is something that cannot be argued against. All one has to do is acknowledge we are not clones of our parents, or look at the diversity of changes brought about by dog and cat breeders, sheep and cow breeders. We see biological change all around us. Evolution is therefore a fact, just like gravity. The Theory of Evolution put forth by Darwin is more properly called the Theory of Natural Selection, which explained this change through the aforementioned natural selection. It has been tested numerous times and shown to work. Is natural selection the only way in which species change? No, but it is a major mechanism. But the point here is that it has been tested and retested. Like all scientific theories, it is not simply a guess based on a few facts. It is permissible to argue about specific mechanisms, but trying to argue whether or not evolution occurs is like arguing whether or not the earth is flat or that we need air to survive.

Evolution and Gravity are Theories (Humor)

Time Enough to Evolve

Time. My day job has kept me extraordinarily busy and away from paleoaerie for a while, thus the lack of new posts here recently, so I thought now would be a good time to discuss temporal issues.  Fortunately, things have calmed down a bit and I can get back to working on evolving the website. Speaking of which, it is time I got started.

Time is a subject about which much has been written, especially about our perceptions of time. One of the difficulties some people have with evolution is they don’t see how small changes in a population could lead to the diversity of life we see. They read about small changes in bacteria or they hear about how the average height and longevity of people have changed in the past few decades. They understand that a wide variety of dogs have been created through artificial breeding. But, the dog is still a dog, the bacterium is still a bacterium, people have not changed in their personal experience.

Unfortunately, they do not see how their personal experience misleads them. To them, the world is essentially unchanging. While human culture may change, the mountains do not move and species do not change. It is a common human tendency to assume that whatever is now has been and will always be. However, while we may think of hundreds of years as ancient history and thousands of years as vast swaths of time, they are a tiny speck of how long evolution has been altering life on this planet.

So how does one get people to comprehend the incomprehensibly vast time frames we are talking about? People have tried several ways. One could always simply show them the geologic time scale.


This is the standard geologic time scale used by professionals the world over, put out by the Geological Society of America. But to most people, this doesn’t really help. It is words and numbers and humans are just not that good at really getting a gut level understanding of figures like this. So many people have come up with a variety of metaphors. A common metaphor is compressing the age of the universe into a single year, a la the Cosmic Calendar, as popularized by Carl Sagan and expanded upon nicely by Arif Babul at the University of Victoria.

cosmiccalendarbabulThe idea of condensing all of time into a calendar can be re-envisioned as a clock. If we extend the circular motif to three dimensions, we find another popular image in that of a great spiral of life.

Geological_time_spiralWe could  also think of time as distance. If, for instance, we decided to get in our car at the Jacksonville, FL airport and drive west and we thought of each mile being 1,000,000 years, we would have to drive to Fairbanks, AL to reach the whole age of the earth. All of human history would be passed by in less than two standard car lengths. An hour into your drive you would pass the asteroid marking the end of the Cretaceous Period and the demise of the non-avian dinosaurs. You would barely be into Tennessee before you passed the Cambrian Explosion over 500,000,000 years ago. By the time you got back to the origins of life, you would be entering the Yukon territories in Canada.

geologictimedrivingBut these are all static images. Perhaps you would prefer a more interactive approach, such as this interactive timeline or perhaps this one.


Perhaps you would prefer an interactive in which time was expressed in terms of size.

prezitimeThese are just a few of the ways that time spans can be visualized. Are you looking for something you can bring into a classroom that the students can touch and experiment with? Try having them build a timeline of their own. What is your favorite? Do you have other ideas?