Social Science Studies Cannot Define Gender Differences -- By: Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen

Journal: Priscilla Papers
Volume: PP 27:2 (Spring 2013)
Article: Social Science Studies Cannot Define Gender Differences
Author: Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen

Social Science Studies Cannot Define Gender Differences

Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen

Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen is professor of psychology and philosophy at Eastern University, St. Davids, Pennsylvania. She is the author of Gender and Grace, My Brother’s Keeper, and A Sword between the Sexes?

As unwitting children of the Enlightenment, we seem to have a Tower of Babel–like craving for absolute certainty. And so both sides in the debate recruit biologists and social scientists as latter-day natural theologians who are supposed to help close the theological gaps by telling us, from a “scientific” perspective, what gender complementarity “really is.” Thus, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (RBMW)1 has chapters on biology, psychology, and sociology, and Discovering Biblical Equality (DBE)2 has chapters written or cowritten by therapists, a sociologist, and an academic psychologist.3 But as an academic psychologist and gender studies scholar who did not contribute to either volume, I am now going to try to explain (not for the first time)4 why this is a misguided exercise. My basic points are these:

(1) Research in neither the biological nor the social sciences can resolve the nature-nurture debate regarding gendered psychological traits or behaviors in humans, let alone pronounce on whether any of these should be retained or rejected in a fallen world—however good it remains creationally. We cannot move from “is” to “ought” on the basis of science alone.

(2) There are very few consistent sex differences in psychological traits and behaviors. When these are found, they are always average—not absolute—differences, and, for the vast majority of them, the small, average—and often decreasing—difference between the sexes is greatly exceeded by the amount of variability on that trait within members of each sex. Most of the “bell curves” for women and men (graphing the distribution of a given psychological trait or behavior) overlap almost completely. So it is naive at best, and deceptive at worst, to make essentialist (or even generalist) pronouncements about the psychology of either sex when there is much more variability within than between the sexes on most of the trait and behavior measures for which we have abundant data.

(3) To adapt one of Freud’s famous dictums, we cannot assume that anatomy is destiny until we have controlled for opportunity. Thus, even when appeals are made to large cross-cultural<...

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