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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

If Girls Think Math is Hard, Researchers Find Science is Even Harder

Posted By on Wed, Jan 18, 2012 at 1:15 PM

She actually said "Math class is tough!" but who cares about accuracy when you're trying to make a point?
  • She actually said "Math class is tough!" but who cares about accuracy when you're trying to make a point?

Remember Teen Talk Barbie? Of course you do! She was the one that got famous for shaking her pretty blonde head and moaning, "Math class is tough!" which, of course, sent a terrible message to impressionable young girls who were at the age where they were just struggling to master addition and subtraction. If Barbie thought math was tough, what chance did they have?

In 1999, a few years after Teen Talk Barbie made her debut, a group of researchers published a paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology that claimed that young girls secretly want to be just like Barbie. Well, OK, the paper showed that if, before you give a girl a math test, you tell her that girls aren't as good as boys at math, she won't score as well. That study spawned a host of replications that proved the exact same thing.

But now a psychology professor at the University of Missouri has conducted a review of the 1999 study and claims that study, and all its successors, are bunk because -- and oh, the irony of this is delicious! -- the researchers screwed up when they tried to turn their raw numbers into statistics.

Hey, math is tough!

David Geary, the Mizzou prof, became suspicious of this so-called theory, called "stereotype threat," when he noticed that ten years later, the gender gap in higher levels of mathematics was still pretty wide. Of course it could be argued that societal change comes slowly, but Geary became convinced it was something else.

"Even with many programs established to address the issue, the problem continued," he said in a statement. "We now believe the wrong problem is being addressed."

And so Geary and another researcher, Giljsbert Stoet from the University of Leeds in the UK, decided to do a close examination of twenty of the replications of the original stereotype theory study. They discovered that not only was the math bad, so was the methodology. Apparently the scientific method is as tough as plain old math. (Could we get a Ken doll to say that?)

"We were surprised the researchers did not subject males to the same experimental manipulations as female participants," Geary said. "It is reasonable to think that men also would not do well if told 'men normally do worse on this test' right before they take the test. When we adjusted the findings based on this and other statistical factors, we found little to no significant stereotype theory effect."

So hooray?

Uh, well, not exactly. If Geary and Stoet are right that the original study is bunk, and since there's still a big gender gap in math, the sciences and engineering, it looks like social scientists are going to have to dig around for another explanation. There's seventeen years of research down the drain.

Geary and Stoet's report on their research is forthcoming in the Review of General Psychology.

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