Pink as cultural construction

I’m glad to see the increasing mainstream media attention to the pink phenomenon‘s past and possible future:

Via Susan Stamberg’s “Girls Are Taught To ‘Think Pink,’ But That Wasn’t Always So“, at NPR:

Before Gatsby, a 1918 trade catalog for children’s clothing recommended blue for girls. The reasoning at the time was that it’s a “much more delicate and dainty tone,” Finamore says. Pink was recommended for boys “because it’s a stronger and more passionate color, and because it’s actually derived from red.”

Via Jeanne Maglety’s “When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink?“, in Smithsonian Magazine:

In 1927, Time magazine printed a chart showing sex-appropriate colors for girls and boys according to leading U.S. stores. In Boston, Filene’s told parents to dress boys in pink. So did Best & Co. in New York City, Halle’s in Cleveland and Marshall Field in Chicago.

Today’s color dictate wasn’t established until the 1940s, as a result of Americans’ preferences as interpreted by manufacturers and retailers.

Via Cordelia Fine’s “Biology doesn’t justify gender divide for toys“, in the New Scientist:

Some have “expressed concern that the ‘pinkification’ of toys for girls was adding to gender inequality in careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”

“But the detrimental effects of this kind of marketing, though clearly only one factor in a mix of many influences on the young, may run broader and deeper. It polarises children into stereotypes. It’s not just that vehicles, weapons and construction sets are presented as ‘for boys’, while toys of domesticity and beautification are ‘for girls’. Toys for boys facilitate competition, control, agency and dominance; those for girls promote cooperation and nurturance. These gender stereotypes, acquired in childhood, underlie a host of well-documented biases against women in traditionally masculine domains and roles, and hinder men from sharing more in the responsibilities and rewards of domestic life.”

Let’s hope that society can use this awareness to help everyone focus on actions over appearances.

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Science as storytelling

Jonathan Olsen and Sarah Gross argue for incorporating more storytelling into science education, based on:

1. Impact on learning

Research has shown that storytelling activates the brain beyond mere word recognition.

2. Inspiration

  We think schools should use reciprocal integration between the arts and sciences to capture [students’] imagination

3. Realities of how science is done

Scientists recognize that science and storytelling are intertwined.

4. Need for scientists to learn strong communication skills

 The importance of storytelling in science has been growing over the last few years as scientists work to communicate with the general public and stimulate more critical thinking about important issues.

5. Potential for inviting more girls into STEM

If teachers taught STEM subjects through the lens of story we think many of those high-achieving girls with astronomical verbal scores might be more interested.  It sure beats a pink microscope.

They advocate not just for incorporating more science-related nonfiction into humanities classes, but for incorporating more storytelling into math and science classes.

What I would add to their statement is the need to address STEM content substantively through those stories, so that they’re not “pink microscopes” that provide mere windowdressing for the subject, but genuine insights into the richness and significance of the mathematical and scientific concepts.

Connecting knowledge and action: On explaining, informing, educating, and mobilizing

In Public Opinion and Political Participation in the Climate Change Debate, Matthew Nisbet reviews factors influencing how people understand and act upon science and policy issues, in a preprint of his chapter:

Nisbet, M.C. (2011). Public Opinion and Political Participation. In D. Schlosberg, J. Dryzek, & R. Norgaard (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society. London, UK: Oxford University Press.

Although he focuses on climate change, the principles he describes are more broadly relevant to communication and engagement, or to understanding and acting on new knowledge in general.

Knowledge isn’t action:

only a small proportion possess the type of opinion intensity that motivates direct participation

Information access isn’t knowledge:

the multi-tasking facilitated by hand-held devices is negatively related to learning and recall

Valuing information isn’t the same as evaluating information:

individuals are ‘cognitive misers,’ relying on personal experience, values, social influences such as friends or colleagues, personal identity, and the most readily available information

He then summarizes these influences:

  1. Schemas

    People have multiple schema[s]… which can be triggered by conversations, personal observation, and direct experience

    tailoring communication to these mental models can improve the ability of individuals and groups to reach decisions and to take actions, especially when statistical information is paired with affective, personally relevant images

  2. Values
    • Hierarchists [worry about] threats to those they respect in power, to established order in society, and to status quo practices

    • Individualists [worry about] unwise restrictions on markets, enterprise, and personal freedom.

    • [Those with] egalitarian and communitarian values [worry about] the need to manage markets and industry in favor of the collective good and to protect the most vulnerable

  3. Framing
    If the information doesn’t fit, it won’t stick.

    a specific media frame is only influential if it is relevant—or applicable—to the audience’s preexisting interpretations and schema

  4. Knowledge
    Knowing how to act matters more than knowing why it is.

    understanding how to take actions or to get involved on an issue [is] generally more important to decision making and behavior [than knowledge about the causes of a problem]

  5. Interpretative Communities
    Whom you know affects what you know.

    Different interpretative communities tend to prefer their own ideologically like-minded news and opinion media

There’s a slight irony in the fact that the initiatives he describes for how to apply these principles to promote understanding and action seem a bit less well developed than the principles themselves. But he does offer this guideline:

the ideal approach… [establishes] an iterative dialogue between stakeholders and experts, where the experts can explain uncertainty and the ways it is likely to be misinterpreted [and] the stakeholders in turn can explain their decision-making criteria as well as their own local knowledge

More recommendations along these lines are critical, especially considering the backfire effect. Knowing that risk discussion can backfire on building consensus should remind us to tread gently when confronting uncertainty, feelings of lack of control, and conflicting beliefs.

Misplaced critical thinking

In Physics Today‘s Science controversies past and present, Steven Sherwood compares the current public response to anthropogenic climate change to the historical responses to heliocentrism and relativity. Even though theories of climate change pale in comparison to the others on the scale of scientific revolutions, he notes many fundamental similarities in their effects on people’s conception of the world. Here are some choice quotes that capture important scientific principles which tend to escape lay understanding and which may make acceptance of scientific theories more difficult. On scientific elegance and parsimony in model comparison:

Surely, the need for a new tweak to the model each time more accurate observations came along should have been a tip-off that something fundamental was wrong.

On deduction vs. observation:

the worked-out consequences of evident physical principles rather than direct observation

A common refrain is the disparagement of new paradigms as mere theories with too little observational basis.

On the backfire effect:

Instead of quelling the debate, the confirmation of the theory and acclaim for its author had sparked an organized opposition dedicated to discrediting both theory and author.

As [confirmatory] evidence continues to accumulate… skepticism seem[s] to be growing rather than shrinking…

provocative ideas… have shattered notions that make us feel safe. That kind of change can turn people away from reason and toward emotion, especially when the ideas are pressed on them with great force.

why the backlash happens: the frailty of human reason and supremacy of emotional concerns that we humans all share but do not always acknowledge

On communicating scientific uncertainty:

“All our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike—and yet it is the most precious thing we have.” (Einstein)

One of the most difficult yet fundamental principles of science is that we don’t and can’t know if we’re right. We can only get closer to what is probably right. Yet science is seldom conveyed or perceived that way. And what makes science so precious is its ability to show us, through inference and deduction, that which seems to contradict our casual observation and which most surprises us. This suggests caution both when employing discovery learning, as we cannot always trust ourselves to discover accurately, and when employing lecture-based instruction, as we are also unlikely to trust authoritarian telling that threatens our preferences for and sense of security about our world. Understanding the relationship between our flawed tools of reason—through cognitive science—and our imperfect tools of science—probabilistic inference, mathematical proof, model comparison—can help us learn better from both. — Sherwood, S. (2011). Science controversies past and present. Physics Today, 64(10), 39-44. http://dx.doi.org/10.1063/PT.3.1295

Science answers the question of “how,” not “what”

In “Trust Me, I’m a Scientist” , cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham argues that the belief that improving science education would increase students’ appreciation for scientific opinion is a misconception, since “Those who know more science have only a slightly greater propensity to trust scientists.” Instead, he suggests, “A more direct approach would be to educate people about why they are prone to accept inaccurate beliefs in the first place.”

I agree with Willingham that educating people in some basic cognitive science (specifically, common fallacies of thinking) would go a long way, but I think he mischaracterizes what good science education should be. It’s not simply about the amount of content, but about an understanding of the nature of science. Science is not a collection of facts, but a way of knowing. Learning more about the history of science (whether in a history class or science class, or both) certainly is one valuable component in providing a richer view of science. Still, it’s only part of the picture. Science education itself should incorporate a strong focus on building an understanding of how scientific knowledge is developed over time. That demands an appreciation for evaluating and quantifying how well evidence supports explanation and comparing the explanatory power of competing theories.

We do still need to provide better science education—a better understanding of “how,” not “what.” It’s crucial for creating a responsible citizenry.

Direct instruction of discovery learning

From Lisa Guernsey’s A False Debate about Preschool (and K-12) Learning:

When a child sees an intriguing model of how to ask questions, explore and test hypotheses, that child will want to do the same.

What children need are more learning environments – not just in preschool, but throughout their early, middle and later years of school – that give them day-to-day experience with adults who offer them effective and engaging models of what it looks like to learn.

Maybe we could think of this as direct instruction of discovery learning, especially if we note that modeling and imitation learning can be much more powerful and direct than declarative description / prescription.

From positive self-esteem to positive other-esteem and learning

Dealing with differences needs to be encouraged gently, whether with ideas or with people.

As described in “People with Low Self-Esteem Show More Signs of Prejudice”[1]:

When people are feeling bad about themselves, they’re more likely to show bias against people who are different. …People who feel bad about themselves show enhanced prejudice because negative associations are activated to a greater degree, but not because they are less likely to suppress those feelings.

The connection between low self-esteem and negative expectations reminds me of related research on the impact of a value-affirming writing exercise in improving the academic performance of minority students:

From “Simple writing exercise helps break vicious cycle that holds back black students”[2]:

In 2007, [Geoffrey Cohen from the University of Colorado] showed that a simple 15-minute writing exercise at the start of a school year could boost the grades of black students by the end of the semester. The assignment was designed to boost the student’s sense of self-worth, and in doing so, it helped to narrow the typical performance gap that would normally separate them from white students.

After two years, the black students earned higher GPAs if they wrote self-affirming pieces on themselves rather than irrelevant essays about other people or their daily routines. On average, the exercises raised their GPA by a quarter of a point.

And from 15-minute writing exercise closes the gender gap in university-level physics[3]:

Think about the things that are important to you. Perhaps you care about creativity, family relationships, your career, or having a sense of humour. Pick two or three of these values and write a few sentences about why they are important to you. You have fifteen minutes. …

In a university physics class, Akira Miyake from the University of Colorado used [this writing exercise] to close the gap between male and female performance. … With nothing but his fifteen-minute exercise, performed twice at the beginning of the year, he virtually abolished the gender divide and allowed the female physicists to challenge their male peers.

Helping people feel better about themselves seems like an obvious, “everybody-wins” approach to improving education, social relations, and accepting different ideas.


[1] T. J. Allen, J. W. Sherman. Ego Threat and Intergroup Bias: A Test of Motivated-Activation Versus Self-Regulatory Accounts. Psychological Science, 2011. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0956797611399291

[2] Cohen, G.L., Garcia, J., Purdie-Vaughns, V., Apfel, N., & Brzustoski, P. (2009). Recursive Processes in Self-Affirmation: Intervening to Close the Minority Achievement Gap. Science, 324(5925), 400-403. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1170769

[3] Miyake, A., Kost-Smith, L.E., Finkelstein, N.D., Pollock, S.J., Cohen, G.L., & Ito, T.A. (2010). Reducing the Gender Achievement Gap in College Science: A Classroom Study of Values Affirmation. Science, 330(6008), 1234-1237. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1195996

How science supplements cognition

Chris Mooney provides some choice excerpts from his interview of astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson on this week’s Point of Inquiry:

Science exists… because the data-taking faculties of the human body are faulty. And what science does as an enterprise is provide ways to get data, acquire data from the natural world that don’t have to filter through your senses. And this ensures, or at least minimizes as far as possible, the capacity of your brain to fool itself.

If it were natural to think scientifically, science as we currently practice it would have been going on for thousands of years. But it hasn’t…. Science as we now practice it [has] been going on for no more than 400 years.

The operations of the universe can be understood through your fluency in math and science, and it’s math and science that give people the greatest challenges in the school system.

It is precisely because they are not “natural” to our thinking that math and science are such powerful tools: They enable us to overcome our natural cognitive biases.

Math and science are perhaps the greatest cultural artifacts that we have, because our appreciation of them is not innate (as opposed to language, music, and visual perception). Rather, our understanding of them derives from the wisdom discovered, constructed, and passed down from others.

More, more numbers!

On “Parents Should Talk About Math Early and Often With Their Children — Even Before Preschool“:

The amount of time parents spend talking about numbers matters more than was previously known. Children whose parents talked more about numbers were much more likely to understand the cardinal number principle (that the size of a set of objects is determined by the last number reached when counting the set.

Susan C. Levine, Linda Whealton Suriyakham, Meredith L. Rowe, Janellen Huttenlocher, Elizabeth A. Gunderson. What counts in the development of young children’s number knowledge? Developmental Psychology, 2010; 46 (5): 1309 DOI: 10.1037/a0019671

Keep counting, parents!