Trowelblazing: Women in archeology (response to a comment on Victoria Herridge’s blog posting)

June 21, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Science, Science writing 

In an article entitled “Trowelblazers: In search of the female Indiana Jones,” Victoria Herridge writes about Dorothy Garrod’s 1930′s archeological work. The purpose of the article is to highlight Garrod’s gender as a way to discuss the broader issue of women’s participation in archeology. One of the commenters, countertrans, responds in the following way.

I am unsure if i get the point of this article. women have broken every single glass ceiling over the last few decades. we are neck to neck with men when it comes to numerous jobs. I am not one bit surprised that women are doing the same in archeology. in fact a woman was queen to half the world when all these fascinating archaeology was going on. So, this article looks like a shameless self promotion to me. Today when women are breadwinner or co-breadwinner in four out of five families our battle is one of pay equity, paid family/maternity leave and fighting for taking care of our families without the fear of loosing our jobs.

The comment says that women have broken “every single glass ceiling,” which is definitely not true. Nature devotes an entire issue to analysis of gender inequalities in science; the Harvard Crimson describes gender biases among the undergraduates there. Many tech fields have a similar problem. Consider the repeated instances of in-the-open misogyny at tech conferences recently, the latest being the rape joke told by someone from Microsoft, on stage. There is good reason to believe that the differences are not due to intrinsic differences between the genders in analytical reasoning. There is also a question of women’s’ experience. I wish I had scientific literature about this. I think many in academia do not think that women can make a significant contribution, judge them on their attractiveness, and see them as objects of sexual desire. This is a structural feature of the environment; there may be just as many women who treat other women badly as there are men.

Pointing out that a woman is or was a queen is a little funny, because if someone is queen, it follows immediately that the person is a woman, because queens can’t be men. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.) More seriously, the gender of a country’s ruler is probably irrelevant to whether there is gender equity in science.

Articles like this one are needed because, as in the case of Indiana Jones, there aren’t any female icons for archeology or in general the study of antiquity. Having such icons (and their real-life counterparts) is important in order to help bring girls and young women into male-dominated fields.

NASA’s astronaut corps is for the first time gender-equal (http://msmagazine.com/blog/2013/06/18/nasas-new-astronauts-reach-gender-parity/). Much of the news media coverage on this reports, in a substantive way, on Sally Ride, the first American woman in space. She’s that iconic role-model.

Now for some real shameless self-promotion: everyone should look up Betsy Bryan and Kara Cooney, archeologists from my graduate alma mater.

I am not entirely guilty of shamelessly promoting myself by responding to a blog comment on my own blog, rather than in the comment thread. I couldn’t log in to the original blog, which is required for posting. I figured that, since I went to the trouble of writing this, it may as well be posted somewhere.

New study provides precisely no evidence whatever for innate ideas

June 4, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Commentary 

The headline of a recent press release by the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne about a recent paper in PNAS (Perin R., Berger T.K., & Markram H: A synaptic organizing principle for cortical neuronal groups, p, 108 (12); link will download a PDF.),  reads “New evidence for innate ideas.” The kind of innate knowledge for which there is supposed to be new evidence is described as follows.

These clusters contain an estimated fifty neurons, on average. The scientists look at them as essential building blocks, which contain in themselves a kind of fundamental, innate knowledge – for example, representations of certain simple workings of the physical world. Acquired knowledge, such as memory, would involve combining these elementary building blocks at a higher level of the system. “This could explain why we all share similar perceptions of physical reality, while our memories reflect our individual experience”, explains Markram.

The “clusters” are “pyramidal neurons in the neocortex,” according to the article. The argument that the way these neurons develop is evidence that there are innate ideas is described.

When the scientists tested in vitro neuronal circuits from different rats, they all presented very similar characteristics. If the circuits had only been formed from the experiences lived by the different animals, the values should have diverged considerably from one individual to the next. Thus, the neuronal connectivity must in some way have been programmed in advance.

The argument is that we should expect different neuron clusters in different rats, because the rats had different experiences as the neurons developed. But what’s seen is that the neuron clusters do not differ from one another.

Hang on. Presumably we all have more or less the same “representations of certain simple workings of the physical world,” because everyone lives in three spatial dimensions and one temporal dimension, which always moves in the same direction; and the fundamental physical properties of medium-sized and large objects are the same everywhere. If something really big falls on something really small, the small thing will be crushed. I imagine the same is true for rats. I would think that rats live in a world poorer in diversity than we do. So it should be no surprise that the neurons that develop in response to the “simple workings of the physical world” develop the same in all the rats and probably all (normal) people as well.

The remarks about Locke are false, at least, within the discipline of philosophy. “Since John Lock [sic], about 400 years ago, research into how the brain learns and remembers has been guided by the belief that we start from a clean slate.” This is not true. Kant quite clearly indicated that he believed that there was some knowledge that we could not have learned through the five senses, but that we possess nonetheless. Querying the Stanford Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy for nativism is a good place to start learning about the veritable flood of work on this subject in many disciplines.

Another point that’s important is that it most certainly does not follow from the claim that a trait is inherited that it is innate. “Innate” is fatally ambiguous, and should probably be retired. Paul Griffiths argues conclusively for this in a paper that’s available online (this links to a PDF file which will be downloaded immediately upon following it.).

Matt Ridley: The promiscuity of things and ideas

May 21, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Review--lecture 

On the evening of Wednesday, 19 May, 2010, author Matt Ridley gave an hour-long talk on his new book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. He spoke at the New York Academy of Sciences, at its headquarters at the newly constructed 7 World Trade Center, which provides stunning views of Manhattan and, as Ridley pointed out at the start of his talk, represents the resilience and ingenuity he believes to be typical of human beings, and which informs his optimism about our future. The event was a part of the “Science in the City” series. About 100 people were in attendance, and the event was filmed for C-SPAN’s Book TV. Ridley is an engaging speaker, eminently clear, speaking at a measured pace in simple but elegant language, humor simmering just below the surface, coming up at just the right moments. He’s excited about his work, and he makes the audience excited about it too. He exhibited model form as a speaker, outlining his talk at the start, and sticking to his plan throughout. Its Book TV presentation is highly recommended; consult the Book TV or NYAS site for schedule information. Science in the City frequently makes podcasts or video footage of its events available on its site as well.

My aim here is to give readers rapid access to the central claims and arguments of the talk. Note that everything I say here is drawn from the talk rather than the book, although it’s reasonable to believe that the aim of his talk is to convey the book’s main ideas. I stay away from evaluating his claims, which I intend to do in a later post. Here I just want to give readers a clear sense of what Ridley is up to.

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