Are Men as Dumb as the Media Say We Are?

Cartoon of popular depictions of men in a devolutionary fashionIn today's media, anti-male sexism is the rule far more than anti-female sexism. Whether it's calling men "idiots," creating smart mom/stupid dad TV shows, publishing books with titles like "Are Men Necessary," our culture is full of what some scholars are calling the "WAW effect," short for Women are Wonderful. These days, it's tough to catch a break if you're an unapologetic male.

What's interesting about the situation is that it's not really that removed from the way things used to be in Western society in which men were the preferred sex. In a fascinating address provocatively titled "Is There Anything Good About Men?" Florida State University professor Roy Baumeister discusses how we've moved from male superiority to male inferiority as well as the reasons behind that shift (h/t Helen Smith):

I said that today most people hold more favorable stereotypes of women than men. It was not always thus. Up until about the 1960s, psychology (like society) tended to see men as the norm and women as the slightly inferior version. During the 1970s, there was a brief period of saying there were no real differences, just stereotypes. Only since about 1980 has the dominant view been that women are better and men are the inferior version.

The surprising thing to me is that it took little more than a decade to go from one view to its opposite, that is, from thinking men are better than women to thinking women are better than men. How is this possible?

I'm sure you're expecting me to talk about Larry Summers at some point, so let's get it over with! You recall, he was the president of Harvard. As summarized in The Economist, "Mr Summers infuriated the feminist establishment by wondering out loud whether the prejudice alone could explain the shortage of women at the top of science." After initially saying, it's possible that maybe there aren't as many women physics professors at Harvard because there aren't as many women as men with that high innate ability, just one possible explanation among others, he had to apologize, retract, promise huge sums of money, and not long afterward he resigned.

What was his crime? Nobody accused him of actually discriminating against women. His misdeed was to think thoughts that are not allowed to be thought, namely that there might be more men with high ability. The only permissible explanation for the lack of top women scientists is patriarchy - that men are conspiring to keep women down. It can't be ability. Actually, there is some evidence that men on average are a little better at math, but let's assume Summers was talking about general intelligence. People can point to plenty of data that the average IQ of adult men is about the same as the average for women. So to suggest that men are smarter than women is wrong. No wonder some women were offended.

But that's not what he said. He said there were more men at the top levels of ability. That could still be true despite the average being the same - if there are also more men at the bottom of the distribution, more really stupid men than women. During the controversy about his remarks, I didn't see anybody raise this question, but the data are there, indeed abundant, and they are indisputable. There are more males than females with really low IQs. Indeed, the pattern with mental retardation is the same as with genius, namely that as you go from mild to medium to extreme, the preponderance of males gets bigger.

All those retarded boys are not the handiwork of patriarchy. Men are not conspiring together to make each other's sons mentally retarded.

Almost certainly, it is something biological and genetic. And my guess is that the greater proportion of men at both extremes of the IQ distribution is part of the same pattern. Nature rolls the dice with men more than women. Men go to extremes more than women. It's true not just with IQ but also with other things, even height: The male distribution of height is flatter, with more really tall and really short men.

Again, there is a reason for this, to which I shall return.

For now, the point is that it explains how we can have opposite stereotypes. Men go to extremes more than women. Stereotypes are sustained by confirmation bias. Want to think men are better than women? Then look at the top, the heroes, the inventors, the philanthropists, and so on. Want to think women are better than men? Then look at the bottom, the criminals, the junkies, the losers.

In an important sense, men really are better AND worse than women.

I don't endorse all of it by any means but it's interesting to finally hear an academic voice challenging the dominant thinking on this issue.

Update 17:55. John Tierney has some additional thoughts centered around Baumeister's contention that sex disparity also exists when it comes to everyone's ancestry. Women are twice as likely to reproduce as men on average.

Philosophy, et cetera focuses on how Baumeister is using biology to help understand sociology.

Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013