She’s Already Got Science – Women, Skepticism And The Need For More Research

Earlier on in the year, I discussed how there are plenty of respectable, long-term, organised not-for-profit organisations that promote women and science. Recently, I learned of a new one.

One of my regular reads at features an interview – from ‘Blog Around the Clock’

Gabrielle Lyon is the Executive Director and Co-founder of Project ExplorationProject Exploration is working to literally change the face of science – one student at a time. Project Exploration is a Chicago-based, nonprofit science education organization dedicated to bringing the excitement of discovery to the public–especially minority youth and girls. We get kids interested, keep them interested, and give them the tools they need to support their interests. We work in three areas–youth development, services for teachers, and public programs like traveling exhibits and a free educational web site.

As a program, you can see it’s aiming at a broad range of issues, not just the area of students. Its overview reflects how the science program is taking steps to address an area of need and supporting out-of-school:

Our science immersion programs serve more than 250 Chicago Public School students, ranging in age from 12-17, with intensive after-school, service learning, and summer science programs. We inspire students about the natural world and their own potential, and we coach their development as successful learners, enabling them to achieve academically and personally.

* 70% of participants are female
* 85% percent of our students are from low-income families
* 65% are African American, 25% Latino, 10% Caucasian.


* 93% graduate high school (compared with 47% of all Chicago Public School students)
* 70% enroll in a four-year college
* 50% of all students who graduate high school as Project Exploration field alumni are majoring in science

Project Exploration girls are nearly five times more likely to pursue science in college than the national average.

Very much worth checking out – ESPECIALLY the The Status Quo vs. Project Exploration part as it deals with an issue that has always concerned me – how do schools that aren’t inner-city elite and/or don’t have gifted and talented programs get access to good education programs?

After reading about how the achievement of friends influences a girl’s interest in science, I notice that this networking for young women is a vital part of encouraging a proactive mindset:

Girls in high school take as many math courses as boys, influenced by close friends and peers who are doing well in school. More than boys, girls look to their close friends when they make important decisions, such as whether to take math and what math classes to take, confirming how significant peers are during adolescence… The study is published in the January/February 2008 issue of the journal Child Development.

Researchers looked at 6,547 high-school girls and boys who had a variety of relationships with peers and tracked the math courses they took. All of the students had taken part in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health from 1995 to 2001.

The researchers found that, contrary to popular opinion but in line with recent government findings, girls have caught up with boys in terms of the math courses they take in high school. One reason this is so, they found, is the kinds of friends and peers they have in high school. All teens girls as well as boys with close friends and other peers who made good grades took more higher-level math than other teens, according to the study. But the connection between these relationships and the math classes was stronger for girls than for boys.

…These findings stress the need to turn attention away from documenting gender differences in math course-taking in high school and toward looking at the reasons why girls and boys take different paths to the same outcomes, according to Robert Crosnoe, associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin and the study’s lead author.

This also encourages me to look more into how female peer groups influence belief in pseudoscientific concepts, something I’m writing my thesis upon this year.

In regards to Project Exploration, you may note that it is a correctly registered non-profit organisation, like the ones I have mentioned previously“Feel free to make a donation of any size. We will put it to good work. We run a tight ship and donations go where they’re supposed towhich is another important factor – accountability, statistics and reporting honestly about what progress a group makes.

It’s like the word ‘scholarship’, where there’s kind of an expectation that there will be accountability for what was given and that feedback will stem from projects undertaken. As a friend of mine wrote, ‘being skeptical and going to school is a good thing; going to school to research or study something which can feed back into skeptical communication and education is better.’

That’s the question. What’s progress? Is progress seeing more women on an Amazing Meeting stage? Or having more women identify themselves as skeptics? Must we assume that ‘supportive of science’ immediately equal ‘skeptic’?

For example – I noticed that Sharon Begley is scheduled to present at TAM6. Her book Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves was released last year and she is a senior Science writer for Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal;

“Begley walks readers through the seminal experiments showing that in fact new neurons are created in the brain every day, even in people in their 70s. With frequent tangents into Buddhist philosophy, Begley surveys current knowledge of neuroplasticity. Most interesting is a series of experiments with Buddhist adepts who have spent over 10,000 hours meditating. What these experiments show is tantalizing: it might be possible to train the brain to be better at feeling certain emotions, such as compassion. No less interesting are the hurdles the scientists face in recruiting participants; yogis replied that if these scientists wanted to understand meditation, they should meditate.”

Why did I pick it up? I’ve been looking a little into meditation and the effect it has on pain, after reading up on acupuncture (my Psychology textbook has some discussion about the difficulty of setting up placebos for acupuncture). One 2007 study concluded that a “… rigorous systematic review found only two RCTs of meditation-based therapy for anxiety disorders, neither of which were of high quality. The current evidence base is thus shown to be weak and a high dropout rate is highlighted.”

I had a discussion with a friend about her claims, where she seems to be substituting a brain-body dualism for a mind-body dualism. “If her schtick is ‘the mind is what the brain does’, that is really old news, and the idea that thinking differently can eventually give rise to changes that are measured with scanners… not surprising. … So long as we are trying to change our brains by changing our minds, we are doing it the hard way. We need to change our environments.”

Yeah. We’re heading into Deepak Chopra world with Begley. THIS is what rallying to ‘get women on the lineup’ at TAM means? Discussing this with her further would be of use to skeptics at the Amazing Meeting 6, I would suggest!

It’s moments like this that I recollect upon how I know that there’s PLENTY of women in science-related fields already and many women who self-identify as skeptics. But people supporting a skeptical world-view full stop seems to be a more important issue. In addition, ‘skeptic‘ is not a blanket word that can be applied to everyone who supports science and nor should it be assumed. It’d be a great world if it were true, but not every Mythbuster is going to question chiropractors, as discovered at TAM4 when one happened to mention that they were taking their wife to one after the conference! We cannot assume it so easily, as many factors contribute to the answer to ‘why not?’

Women involved in promoting investigations of the paranormal and pseudoscientific isn’t new either. Dr Karen Stollznow, for example, who has been writing and investigating for nearly a decade. Lynne Kelly, author of ‘The Skeptics Guide to the Paranormal’. The co-presenter ‘Swoopy‘ on Skepticality, who has shown more resilience than most people I know, let alone women, in running a show during the absence of her co-presenter Derek.

Vicky Hyde, the Chair-entity of the New Zealand Skeptics, Dr. Ginger Campbell of Brain Science Podcast, Carol Tarvis, Barbara Walker, Anne Druyan, Dr Harriet Hall, Dr Eugenie Scott, Elizabeth Loftus,  Lisa Jong-Soon Goodlin and Ginny Mauldin-Kinney are some who have been ‘in the field’ for years and doing very fine work. I myself interviewed Dr Krissy Wilson, who is one of many female graduates and wonderfully confident spokespeople for skepticism, who came from Goldsmiths College, London. Another inspirational woman is Dr Caroline Watt, who has been another great help when pointing me in the right direction for my research. I cannot, of course, forget the woman who started the Skeptical Community forum – the legendary Girl 6, aka Ms. Maira Benjamin.

Would you like even further back in history? Annie Laurie Gaylor wrote an entire book entitled ‘Women without Superstition’, on women freethinkers of the nineteenth and twentieth century, which holds several examples of early-day pro-science attitudes.

Let us not forget that Houdini’s wife, Bess, who was profiled in Skepticality’s episode on the Houdini Museum – that also featured magician Dorothy Dietrich. I would also recommend the book The Occult Tradition: From The Renaissance to the Present Day by David S. Katz.

Funnily enough – the first article I uncover comes from Professor DeeAnne Wymer who wrote ‘Why Are There So Few Female Skeptics?’ back in 1996 – her unpacking of the ‘excuses’ as to why not include “family and work demands leave women with little time for any outside activities; Sexism among male members creates an unpleasant atmosphere for women; Groups seldom focus on topics of interest to women; Skeptics are generally recruited from the sciences, fields with fewer women.” But isn’t this typical of women in the sciences too, women’s participation in many groups? Of course, sexism cannot be tolerated in any social gathering – but must skeptical investigations and gatherings be ‘focused on topics of interest to women’ when we can see how skeptical issues focus on a great many ideas that do benefit both genders? Sure, we all have different areas of ‘passion’, but must we limit on the basis of ‘she’s female, therefore deserving’? Why not encourage more of a range instead? Why assume all skeptical women are the same? I’m particularly interested in deists who are keen to challenge pseudoscientific and paranormal practices for example, who in my opinion are marginalized with the assumption that ‘skeptic = atheist.

In fact, there’s a lot of contradiction regarding ‘comfort amongst male skeptics’ being expressed in a section entitled ‘Where The Girls Aren’t‘ in an article by Jeanine DeNoma on ‘Local Skeptical Groups’ which quotes another article by Sheila Gibson written in 1999:

Gibson raises the point that “maybe skeptical women are just different.” She quotes one woman who said, “Women who participate don’t necessarily have a science background and they don’t fit female stereotypes. They seem comfortable in groups of men. Being the only woman doesn’t bother them.”

Just being a skeptic, male or female, probably means one is at least somewhat comfortable being out-of-step with the mainstream. One reward for affiliation with an organized skeptics group is the interaction that occurs among seriously-mindful and thought-challenging skeptics. {my emphasis}

Why, I ask myself, must women in skepticism be particularly ‘mobilised’ or what have you? Are there particular needs that women skeptics have that aren’t going to be bolstered by already-existing Science for Women initiatives – or are they pointedly shut out right now from the embrace of social communities of skeptics, humanists, what have you? Or is this just a situation that faces women in general in society anyway? I again question if this is more ‘attention getting for attention-getting’s sake’ and runs the risk of having every skeptical woman being labelled as the ‘partygirls / groupies of skepticism‘ due to the actions of a few. And it is happening, I know.

Certainly, I know – research does suggest that women are more superstitious than men (Gallup & Newport, 1991) and that females hold a greater range of paranormal beliefs than males (Wolfradt, 1997; Rice, 2003; IPSOS Mori, 2007), although men express greater belief in UFOs and extraterrestrials (Rice, 2003). According to Blackmore (1997) a possible reason for this is that males are encouraged to engage in science, while females are more encouraged towards social and religious issues which emphasise fantasy life. Studied have demonstrated that there has been a documented increase in belief in various items like Extra-Terrestrials, ghosts, hauntings, communication with the dead and astrology (National Science Foundation, 2002).

Should we perhaps accept that ‘less women is the status quo anyway’ and get to supporting science in general for the good of all then? It’s something I touch upon in my Skeptical Books for Children posts, how encouraging science literacy should be our main effort.

A similar situation exists with regard to the adoption of secular world views with associated New Age beliefs (Hergovich & Arendasy, 2005). This has also been noted in the shift in younger generation Australians towards New Age practices and associated paranormal beliefs (Mason, Webber, Singleton, & Hughes, 2006). Age related differences in beliefs are also evident with adults under the age of 30 reported as being more superstitious than older age groups (Gallup & Newport, 1991) and that increasing age may lead to greater belief in the supernatural (Shermer, 1997; Aarnio & Lindeman, 2006).

Generally, the various polls and research studies appear to illustrate a growing trend not only towards traditional superstitious beliefs but to new ones that should be considered. Technological advances such as genetically modified foods, computer games, SMS phone games, a far broader range of exposure to esoteric beliefs through the Internet and films, and television shows are seen as contributing factors to such new beliefs in the mystical and paranormal (Preece & Baxter, 2000; Clark, 2002; Mowen & Carlson, 2003).

Paranormal beliefs can be influenced by cultural factors such as family, peer groups, media influences, and the persuasive power of social institutions (e.g., religious or cultural groups) and education (Schriever, 2000; Clark, 2002; Díaz-Vilela & Álvarez-González, 2004).

Socialisation has been used to explain gender differences concerning the extent of paranormal beliefs – I’ve already mentioned the power of peer influence and friendships in a recent study on what leads girls to continue on in the sciences whilst at school. Clark (2005) for example, noted the prevalence of popular culture and new age beliefs in teenage females, while Mason, Webber, Singleton and Hughes (2006) recorded a shift towards secular views of the world which incorporated many new age beliefs and practices.

Clark (2002) employed research from a multiyear ethnographic study to examine the narratives of teenage girls with various backgrounds and levels of interest in religion in the USA. This study was particularly interested in how narratives from popular culture mediums (television shows, films) are either rejected or incorporated into what young people claim are their religious beliefs (Clark, 2002). Although the study did not use a paranormal belief scale, questions were preceded with “do you think X is possible” in addition to “do you believe in X”? to better determine if there was an emergent sense of uncertainty about the supernatural (Clark, 2002). The findings demonstrated that entertainment media (such as popular culture portrayals of the supernatural) and religion are part of a broader framework which influences young people’s beliefs; those who are not fully entrenched in religious, political or sceptical scientific inquiry may find themselves more likely to find ‘the possible’ or appeal of supernatural or paranormal realms, particularly as a challenge to the government or religion they feel alienated from (Clark, 2002).

In conclusion, I’d say a more broader approach to supporting women in science-related fields, recognising that there are already groups and initiatives out there that are needing our support and acknowledging that there are hundreds of women who have been for some time, are and will continue to challenge claims of the pseuedoscientific and the paranormal.

I will personally continue to seek to know more, because I think we all agree that to skimp on the research just does both genders a disfavour. It certainly isn’t scientific.

Want to know more? Further posts on this subject:

Women And Superstitions: Part One

Women and Superstitions: Part Two

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Filed under All About Me, Challenges to Science, Current Events, Education, Links Elsewhere, Media, Paranormal, Parenting, Podcasting, Pseudoscience, Psychology, Science, Skepticism

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