Recently there was a study with unsurprising [to me] results, which received a surprising [to me] reaction from scientists.
The low representation of women in science is often dismissed as a product of women’s own interest or aptitude, but a new study by researchers at Yale University suggests that institutional sexism is a likely candidate. The study found that both male and female science professors—in fields from biology to physics—ranked female students lower than their male peers, even when their qualifications were identical. The average starting salary offered to the female candidate was $4,000 less than that offered to the man.
The Yale scientists told the New York Times that their results “probably reflected subconscious cultural influences rather than overt or deliberate discrimination.” Conscious or not, it’s often pretty obvious. Dr. Jo Handelsman, one Yale biology professor behind the study, said that many of her peers dismissed the work, guessing that “scientists would rise above” sexism “because they were trained to analyze objective data rationally.” Handelsman’s data disagreed.
You know what I would expect people would do if they were trained to analyze objective data rationally? Not assume that they are superhumans immune to bias.
The way they conducted the study was to make fake resumes and assign male or female names to them. They’ve done similar studies in the past, both with male and female names and using names that “sound white” or “sound black”. This really should not be surprising to any scientist. I have a tendency to romanticize scientists, and when I hear of something like this, it just feels incredible that they could be so ignorant. I guess that most of these studies do not use scientists as subjects, but I don’t think that’s much of an excuse for thinking that scientists have magical bias immunity.
If scientists are hoping to combat the public perception that they are arrogant and filled with hubris, scientists saying that they’re immune to normal human failings is probably not the way to go about it. (This article says there’s also evidence that smart people are more prone to bias, and education doesn’t seem to counter the effect, although it does not discuss bias against groups of people specifically.)
When I initially read about this I didn’t connect it to fat, but of course it’s yet more evidence that questioning scientists on their conclusions is a needed corrective to the errors in thinking that they, like everyone else, are vulnerable to. As if recent history wasn’t enough evidence [ctrl+F for “separate spheres” on the final link].