Sex, Intuition, and Evidence in Science

Over at A Most Curious Planet, Alexandra Jellicoe offers a story with the provocative headline Is Science Sexist?, which spins off an anecdote from astronomy:

I was listening to Radio 4 a few months ago and the discussion about gender intelligence lodged in the deeper recesses of my brain unthought-of until recently when I went to see Jocelyn Bell Burnell talking of her ‘Eureka’ moment. She discovered the existence of neutron stars called Pulsar’s in 1967 and I think she can safely be considered one of England’s most pioneering and gifted scientists. I was struck by her comments that she intuitively knew she had discovered these stars months before it was proved. Her colleagues (mostly male) didn’t believe her until she systematically followed due scientific process and offered a logical and evidence based explanation of what she knew to be right.

The part of this I find interesting is the role of male and female intelligence and their role in science. At this point I think I may change my definition of the different types of intelligence. I prefer to use ‘Masculine Intelligence’ to describe a step-by-step, logical approach to problem solving and ‘Feminine Intelligence’ to describe an intuitive approach to problem solving. The distinction being that it is possible for a man to have a more feminine intelligence and vice-versa rather than brain power being defined purely by your private parts. Although I think on the whole the general differences in gender still hold true.

She talks a bit about her own career, and then returns to the provocative question:

The question I am really asking here is, is the entire structure of scientific research sexist? Is there no scope to include this more feminine intelligence? And more importantly, is our society significantly losing out as a result?

My honest reaction to this is “Huh?” Not so much because I don’t know what “includ[ing] this more feminine intelligence” would look like, but because I’m not sure what’s supposed to be missing. Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s experience as described there doesn’t sound to me like the crushing of feminine intelligence by an excessively masculine structure, it sounds like every other great discovery story in science.

I mean, think about the great foundational myths of physics. They all take this same basic form: somebody has an intuitive leap, and then spends a great deal of time doing the hard work necessary to support it.

Isaac Newton supposedly had a flash of insight about gravity while sitting under an apple tree. He spent the next twenty years inventing calculus to make it work.

Einstein had a great insight about objects in free fall in 1907 or so. He spent the next eight years turning that insight into General Relativity (learning a whole bunch of new mathematics in the process).

Nobody’s really clear on what inspired Bohr to propose his quantum model of hydrogen, but if that doesn’t count as an intuitive leap, I don’t know what does. Louis de Broglie proposed the wave nature of electrons because it seemed to have a nice intuitive symmetry with the particle nature of light; it took a few years before Davisson and Germer and Thomson did the experiments demonstrating it. Feynman initially had a hard time getting his version of QED accepted because it involved a new way of thinking about the problems that he found very intuitive, but had to convince other physicists was valid.

And on, and on, and on. Intuition isn’t punished in science, it’s celebrated. Name a famous scientist, and there’s almost certainly a story about how their most noted work arose from a flash of insight followed by months or years of hard work to provide the evidence. And most such stories will involve male scientists. I suppose you could decide to say that those great geniuses were somehow “more feminine” in their approach to science, while the bulk of the structure of science is “more masculine,” but given that these people are held up as the examples to which we all aspire, that seems kind of silly.

Every scientist hopes for that “Eureka” moment, that inspired moment of understanding that illuminates a problem. But Science as a whole relies on the long and tedious accumulation of evidence because that’s what separates genius from failure. Not every flash of inspiration is correct, and the only way to know for sure if your intuition is correct is by checking it against reality through experiments and observations.

Now, if you want to argue that Jocelyn Bell Burnell had a harder time convincing her colleagues that she had discovered pulsars than one of her male colleagues would have had with the same evidence, that would be sexism at work. I don’t know the details of her case, but the history of astronomy includes some fairly deplorable things done to female scientists, so it might very well be true. But that’s a different, sociological argument, that doesn’t have anything to do with masculine and feminine intelligence or the structure of science as an intellectual endeavor.

(Jellicoe link originally via Sheril Kirshenbaum on Twitter.)

25 thoughts on “Sex, Intuition, and Evidence in Science

  1. Chad, the point is all the scientists you mention are male. So, since females are as intelligent as men and are not making the discoveries, they are suppressed and humanity is missing out on their contributions. Now if I could just convince my boss she’s being suppressed here and needs to go out and fight for female recognition instead of cranking out those papers ….

  2. Wan’t crazy about her opening paragraph (“I want to make it clear I’m not a ranting feminist! Gosh, no, I’m a girly girl!”).

    Moving on, I’m also confused about the Curie example: “Marie Curie perhaps one of the most famous female scientists that ever lived is quoted to have said ‘I never see what has been done; I only see what remains to be done.’ In other words, she preferred to use her intuition rather than examine the evidence.”

    That seems like a hell of a leap to make from that statement. I myself have noticed that in many projects (at work, renovating my house, training my dog…), the stuff I have already accomplished seems utterly insignificant in comparison to the vast, looming mountain of stuff I still have to do. Doesn’t mean I didn’t follow a systematic process to get to this point! Marie Curie may very well have felt the same. (Or she may have said something entirely different. Or said it in French. Or Polish.)

    In conclusion: Hmph. I’m with you. Intuitive leaps are awesome and fabulous but you still have to put in the grunt work.

  3. Mu – that is still the sociological argument that Chad Orzel puts forth at the end of the post. I have to agree with it. It’s about whether the scientific community is less disposed to accept the findings or insights of women, not whether the scientific method “has a place” for “feminine intuition”. The method is the method, and works only with evidence.

    If the scientific method were to have a place for intuition as evidence, well, we’d just have to accept the Time Cube as science.

  4. What sorry state would we be in if we accepted intuitive hunches as settled as rigorous proof? The stupid, it burns.

  5. Also think it’s interesting, form a sociological point of view, that Dr. Burnell’s story is seen as using ‘feminine intuition’/’feminine intelligence’, rather than, as you said, one of the stories we tell about major discoveries and Eureka moments.

    Hell, that moment of clarity is awesome, and it could tell you where you need to focus, but, to steal a phrase from Feynmann, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.” Doing the deduction lets you demonstrate to yourself that you did put it together correctly in the back of your mind — if you worked the problem two different ways, and they give the same result, it makes it less likely that you made some dumb mistake.

  6. As a woman, I would like some of this feminine intuition. I hear it exists and that women think less logically than men. I can’t ever say I had any. I one got a feeling that I shouldn’t change lanes on the highway…and there was a guy in my blindspot. I think that might be the result of having looked in the rearview mirror earlier and not having registered his presence because I was daydreaming instead of it being women’s intuition. Did I forfeit my right to women’s intuition at some point? If anyone has any, could you clue me in on where to get some? I think it would come in handy when trying to find concurrency problems in multithreaded code.

  7. “… the great foundational myths of physics … all take this same basic form: somebody has an intuitive leap, and then spends a great deal of time doing the hard work necessary to support it”

    And the mythology completely overlooks all the other scientists (men and women) whose intuitive leaps later turn out to be wrong.

    The whole post is wishful thinking.

  8. The field of botany has the highest proportion of female scientists of all the sciences, some think a left-over of Victorian ideas about what young ladies of good breeding should study. It would be interesting to learn if women in botany have different perceptions as a result of having many more women in the profession.

  9. The field of botany has the highest proportion of female scientists of all the sciences,

    As long as you leave out the social sciences, maybe. I won’t get into that particular multigenerational flamewar.

  10. I think you’re absolutely right, Chad. However, the problem with these sorts of discussions is that it’s almost impossible to have them. By questioning this narrative, you leave yourself open to being painted as one or more of the following:

    1) Part Of The Problem of not appreciating geniuses.
    2) Part Of The Problem of under-estimating how women are mistreated.
    3) Yet Another Guy who wants women to be just like men and doesn’t understand their unique perspective.

    Never mind that on the first point yours is the intellectually sound side, you actually made the second point in your post, and you never excluded the possibility that women might have something unique to offer. You just argued that this is not a strong example for the third proposition.

  11. Yeah, this is silliness. I have those great flashes of intuition about once a week, get excited and work hard for a day or two, and then see that they’re wrong. Oops. Back to the drawing board. Repeat as necessary.

  12. Ugh. As a woman, a scientist, and a feminist, any argument or discussion which starts by assigning gender to modes of thought (i.e. analytical thought = male/masculine intelligence, intuitive thought = female/feminine intelligence) is already on shaky ground with me. I also look askance at the quoted anecdote and the conclusions drawn from it, for the same reasons you do (intuitive leaps are not in any way alien to science as practiced by dudes any more than analysis is alien to science as practiced by women), but also because, hey, you always hear about the great genius revolutionary hypotheses which bear out after further development and testing, but for each one of those, there’s a dozen (or more!) intuitive leaps which turn out to not be supported by observation and experiments.

    “Science” is not just about coming up with a new idea about how the world works; it’s about testing those new ideas and showing that they work, or revising them if they don’t. That only makes science sexist if one accepts the premise that testing new ideas before accepting them is an inherently male trait, and that the opposite is inherently female. Which: oh hell, no.

  13. I also said “huh”. One of the best physicists I have watched up close (meaning on a day to day basis) had unbelievable insight of the type described as “feminine intuition”. It was maddening to his grad students because he could not help them solve the problem he had posed for them. He only “knew” it had to be true, not how it should be attacked and could not even articulate how he knew it was true.

    I understand that something like this was true for the mathematician Galois, who put numerous ideas on paper on the eve of his death in a duel.

    I suspect that the description in the quoted text is simply an attempt to provide a logical explanation for something that is inherently illogical: prejudice against ideas because of who proposes them, not their own merits.

  14. I think we’re all looking at famous “Eureka!” moments for examples to compare with this story, but a huge amount of the scientific enterprise is founded on the same dynamic. The people most closely working on a certain problem or in a certain area can intuitively see if a given explanation/theory/model/whatever is correct. They’ve internalized all the nuances of the problem so deeply that when the right explanation comes along they just know it.

    The work then lies in carefully going through the details of the explanation so that another scientist who is not so close to the problem can follow and believe it. That might take years, or might never happen. (Also, their “intuitively correct” answer might be wrong.)

    I mean, what theorist doesn’t do this? Some work on unproven models for their entire careers. Would they do that if they thought the models were wrong? No! They can intuitively see that their preferred model is right (whether they are correct or not is a completely different story…) and they spend all their time trying to sell it to an audience who is less enthusiastic than they.

    Whole fields of study can be founded on this behavior. String theory is the first that comes to mind. Higgs boson? Exactly the same phenomenon. Hell, international collaborations build billion dollar particle accelerators based on their intuitive feelings that the Higgs must be there. (Okay, that’s massively oversimplifying, but it still fits as an example of what I’m describing.)

    Calling this drive a “female” type of science is ignoring the huge number of examples that happen all the time, carried out by males and females in every subfield of physics.

  15. I agree with you Chad. A better line of feminist argument would be that women have a harder time getting the resources they need to pursue their intuitions. Certainly historically and probably even now. But it is also true, that historically intuition in females has been trivialized, whereas intuition in males has been described as ‘genius’. It seems worth wondering if there’s a legacy of that today, not to mention in the sixties. There might for example be an internalized depreciation of their own intuition by some women, compared with men, and that might make it even harder to compete for resources.

  16. To be perfectly honest, I’m a bit insulted whenever discussions like this come up. Intuition and insight are great, but you had better be able to show me the math to back it up. Being a woman has nothing to do with a desire for evidence in science.

    I may be projecting, but as an excellent scientist, I would like to think that Jocelyn Bell Burnell might be offended that she happened to be the ‘poster child’ for the downright crazy notion that science shouldn’t require empirical evidence.

    Now if the author wanted to argue that JBB got screwed when her advisor was awarded the Nobel prize for what was fundamentally her work and that this is a result of a sexist scientific infrastructure, then I’d be on the same page with her.

  17. Ideas are a dime a dozen. They’re worth very little until you do the hard work.
    I think Alexandra Jellicoe is missing the important point about Jocelyn Bell Burnell (maybe she neglects to mention this part when lecturing), which is that SHE WORKED VERY VERY HARD. I mean, I myself have never actually personally built a radiotelescope, much less spent thousands of hours using it.

  18. I have to admit that I’m a little bit boggled that a story about Jocelyn Bell and sexism in science managed to make it seven hours and sixteen comments before somebody mentioned that, yes, there was a Nobel Prize for the discovery of pulsars as neutron stars, and, no, Jocelyn Bell was not one of the recipients. It may be because Chad’s not an astronomer, and isn’t familiar with this, but many (most? all?) astronomers are familiar with Jocelyn Bell as the name of somebody who got unfairly ripped off by the Nobel committee. *That* is where this story is not like the story of every other great discovery in science.

    I forget where it was, but at some institution where Jocelyn is or was in residence, they give out the “Bell No-Prize” each year to the grad student whose advisor has taken the most credit for the student’s work, or some such.

  19. I agree that the ‘feminine intuition’ thing is on shaky ground. However, I am still insulted by the vague suggestion that women don’t face enormous (rather than, as you seem to think, maybe a little) sexism in science. There is plenty of hard research to show bias against women in STEM fields. I’m still waiting, after some decades, for male physicists to familiarise themselves with this literature, because as good academics this is not a problem that they should be ignoring in 2010.

  20. Having said that, there IS a very big problem in Science with a lack of diversity. Even if it is only due to experience, women and minorities DO think differently to white men, and science IS missing their contributions. I have always had a problem with being ‘too feminine’ for many of my colleagues. I decided to be a scientist at 15, I had a good education and I was considered a gifted child. No man with my background would have failed to find support along the way … at least I very much doubt it.

  21. It’s interesting that the Science blogs ad generator put an ad for Talbots right next to your blog showing a woman trying to look… what? sexy? raunchy? hot? feisty? grrlish? devil-may-care? She’s definitely not trying to look scientific….

  22. I agree that intuition is fundamentally important in science for everyone regardless of their sex and that it is only a first and relatively quick and painless step, the real work starts later when one sets out to test this intuition which usually requires translating it into mathematics.

    I had a nice intuitive insight a year ago and am still learning all the mathematics necessary to eventually see if I can make it work, it’s painfully slow but there is no royal road to geometry :/

  23. Rob @18: That Bell didn’t share in the Nobel Prize that was awarded for her work would be one of the sociological factors Chad mentioned, and he admitted that he was unfamiliar with Bell’s case. It doesn’t change the point that Bell had a radical intuitive idea which she was able to establish with a considerable amount of hard work, and that that pattern is common in science.

    Ragging on intuitive leaps is actually quite common. We are all probably familiar with the usage of “intuitively obvious” as “I don’t understand this well enough to explain it” or some similar meaning, enough so that we cringe when we hear somebody (a professor in lecture or a conference presenter) use that phrase.

  24. Burnell’s big mistake is this genderist labeling of intelligence. We need to completely abandon “Masculine Intelligence” in favor of “logical intelligence”, and abandon “Feminine Intelligence” in favor of “intuitive intelligence” if we ansolutely have to use those terms.

    The fact is, as you point out, that there is no gender attached to either of these, and there is no intuitive intelligence without immersion in a topic. No one comes into a scientific field with zero backgrouod in anything remotely related to it and suddenly announces a solution completely out of the blue.

    Those “intuitive leaps” come from people immersed in their work. There’s nothing magical or miraculous about it.

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