One strange feature of all these debates is the overwhelming preponderance of men. That is a problem, in my view. We do need to find ways to do better. Among many other things, we need to be kind to woman than join us here. Please keep that in mind.
This does reflect a large problem in science, which has been largely dominated by men. Though things are improving. See this interesting article in Science.
In the 1960s and 1970s, less than 1% of students depicted scientists as female. But the percentage of women in the “draw a scientist” sketches—like the one pictured, drawn by a third grade girl in San Antonio, Texas—has increased over time, reaching an estimated 34% by 2016. And the numbers are even more stark when looking at drawings penned by girls: About 1% drew women in the first 2 decades—but in the past decade more than half have drawn women, researchers report in Child Development.
Interesting study here. It seems that there has been a steady trend for students to imagine scientists as women. The trend is strongest among girls, hopefully suggesting they are imagining that they could be scientists too. That is good news. That might be part of what makes things different in the next generation.
As @swamidass mentions, this has been a problem in science at large, but trends are going in the right direction. I have been very encouraged after seeing a 50/50 split in undergrad summer research internships I have been involved with in the past. As much as we may joke about millennials, I think they are going to make for an amazing group of scientists in the near future.
This is a good point. Actually, it subdivides into two points: (1) Why men, more than women, seem to be more “into” discussing origins in public; (2) Why origins debates often become frictional in a way that turns many women away from getting involved in them.
I’ll focus here on the second point, and start with an example. I remember distinctly something that happened at BioLogos a few years ago. A new commenter showed up, one who identified herself as a woman. She was not an expert, and didn’t pretend to be, just someone wanting to learn, ask questions, offer suggestions, etc. She wasn’t particularly fundamentalist and I don’t remember if she identified her religion at all. One of the commenters there – it was either melanogaster or benkirk (it doesn’t make much difference, since both had the same style and similar contents in their postings) was mercilessly aggressive to her, making no concession in his argumentative style to the obvious fact that she was a new poster and might appreciate a gentler welcome. At one point she indicated that she found his line of interrogation hostile and unpleasant and that she was inclined to cease participating. Soon afterward (almost immediately) she vanished, never to reappear. I’d say she lasted about a month on the site at the most, and only a day or two after her expression of discomfort.
I suspect that this sort of thing happens often on these websites. There is a tendency for the discussions to be dominated by a certain sort of aggressiveness that has traditionally (and not entirely without basis) been more associated with males than females: the purpose of conversation for a certain type of male is to establish winners and losers, rather than to share insights and arrive at a common truth which embraces the best ideas from all sources.
It might be called a stereotype, but seems to have some basis in empirical observation, that women relish conflict less than men. Again, on BioLogos, Dennis Venema seemed to enjoy disputes, whereas Kathryn Applegate and Deb Haarsma always seemed to shy away from them. Dennis would defend a position at great length, whereas, once challenged by a commenter, Kathryn and Deb would simply drop the subject.
I’m not of course saying there are no women who enjoy aggressive argumentation, and no men who are gentle, seek common ground, and avoid unnecessary conflict. (On BioLogos, Ted Davis was great at trying to find common ground with people who opposed his statements, and Pete Enns was seen to retract and modify points on several occasions when a thoughtful commenter gave good reasons.) But something about the internet as a medium seems to bring out, at least on sites devoted to contentious issues, a sort of “alpha male” personality, the sort of personality that strongly dislikes yielding even a single small point to an opponent, lest that be taken as a sign of weakness, and many women, including many intelligent and educated ones, don’t enjoy that sort of social atmosphere. Most women, it seems, don’t mind yielding points and admitting that the other person has part of the truth.
It’s pretty obvious that on sites like Recursivity, Panda’s Thumb, Pharyngula, Quintessence of Dust, etc. the tone is/was gauntlet-throwing rather than “Let’s explore the truth together,” and again, while there are some women (like Abbie Smith) who seem to relish biting exchanges, a good number of women don’t. Again, one can say this is a gender stereotype, but it is true in my experience of church life, social life, etc. that women on the whole tend to be more cooperative and less competitive when it comes to dealing with differences in ideas or policies. So when they see conversations which appear to be the equivalent of two rams butting heads with each other, they tend to stay on the sidelines, or leave the venue altogether.
From the point of view of many women readers, I suspect, many of the debates about origins on websites resemble the behavior of John Cleese in the classic “I’d Like to Have an Argument” sketch by Monty Python, only without the redeeming humorous framing.
Great post, Eddie! I think this point is particularly important:
The winners vs. losers approach is dominant in many internet forums and I think one of Peaceful Science’s original strengths was that people are less confrontational, even if they disagree. Lately, I’ve noticed that that’s started to erode, as some participants here have lately been strident and aggressive, both overtly (using aggressive language) and passively (never conceding even a single point). I hope we can do better. I think we should make sure new participants are not immediately attacked on all sides, but initially allowed to just explore this community.
I agree, adding only that most internet forums I follow are dominated by male commenters (usually in a ratio exceeding 5 to 1 and often exceeding 10 to 1), so the connection seems be something more general than just “origins questions.” The issue could be global warming, Brexit, or any number of things, and almost always the majority of commenters are male, by a large margin. This is all the more puzzling, as the pool of people qualified to discuss issues would come largely from university students and university graduates, and (last I read) there are more female than male undergrads at universities these days. (That is not true of all subject areas, e.g., engineering, but is said to be true on average.) So of the group of people we can call “university educated”, it seems that the males are proportionately more inclined than the females to debate issues on the internet.
I also think there’s an issue of relevance that seems to often be at play. When I talk to female faculty (especially in science) they just don’t seem that interested in the more philosophical or esoteric parts of the origins discussion. Add in the combative, win at all costs, nature of the discussion often times, and they just get completely uninterested. Not to necessarily play completely into stereotypes, but they seem more interested in personal stories and how science can be a social benefit.
I just started a summer faculty book club on Steve Olson’s Mapping Human History and almost half of the participants are women (mostly non-scientists). I do think women find the “big questions” as interesting as men, but they seem almost completely uninterested in the perpetual “origins debate”.
Another anecdote from my context, the science majors I now teach are roughly 70-80% women, it does change the dynamics of the classroom a bit and maybe more significantly I have had to shift the way I approach motivating students and keeping them engaged.