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Announcing the Skeptics Society Forum

Share your opinions and ideas with other skeptics at The Skeptics Society Forum, a place for reasoned, lively interaction on all matters skeptical. We hope you’ll enjoy stimulating discourse with others of like – and different – mind.

New Keynote: Mike Reiss

Michael Crichton will be unable to participate in this year’s Skeptics Society Conference and in his stead we shall be entertained by the producer of The Simpsons, Mike Reiss. Saturday Evening Keynote Address: “Simpsons Mania – Behind the Scenes with America’s Favorite Family”

Mike Reiss has won four Emmys and a Peabody Award for his work on The Simpsons, the wacky animated series that has kept America laughing for more than a decade and earned Time magazine’s vote as “the greatest TV show of the twentieth century.” During his eleven seasons on the show, Reiss penned a dozen scripts and produced over 200 episodes. Culled from more than two decades of creating the funniest and most outrageous shows on television, Reiss’ presentation is a unique glimpse inside the cutting edge of entertainment, including rare video clips from The Simpsons and The Critic. He takes audiences inside the lives of Springfield’s first family, revealing how The Simpsons was almost cancelled before it hit the air, secret trivia of the show, insane dealings with network censors, and lots of juicy gossip about celebrity guest stars. Reiss also delves into the current state of television programming, describing with his characteristic wit why TV is so rotten and what steps need to be taken to bring the medium back to life.

Reiss also developed the animated series The Critic and created Showtime’s hit cartoon Queer Duck (about a gay duck). Queer Duck has earned rave reviews from The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, the gay press, and Howard Stern. It was recently named one of The 100 Greatest Cartoons of All Time by the BBC. Reiss’ other TV credits include It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, The PJs, and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Reiss’ original dramatic screenplay, Fat Man is in production with Adam Sandler attached to star.

His caveman detective story Cro-Magnon P.I. won an Edgar Award as Best First Mystery. He also wrote the best-selling children’s book How Murray Saved Christmas, soon to be a feature film from Nickelodeon. Other children’s books include The Great Show-and-Tell Disaster, Santa Claustrophobia, and the award-winning Late for School. Reiss is also a frequent contributor to Esquire, Games Magazine and Modern Humorist.

A graduate of Harvard, Reiss is a former president of The Harvard Lampoon and editor of The National Lampoon. He has also lectured on comedy at college campuses across the country, as well as Mensa, the Friars Club, Goldman Sachs/Hong Kong, and the Smithsonian Institute. He is married (happily) and lives in Los Angeles (sadly).

For more information, visit our website on the Brain, Mind & Consciousness conference in May.

In an eSkeptic earlier this month, we reprinted an article by Diane Halpern, Sex, Brains & Hands — Gender Differences in Cognitive Abilities. For this week’s eSkeptic we present a letter by Susan Carol Losh on the subject.

Susan Carol Losh, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and research methodologist at Florida State University’s Department of Educational Research.

Mr. Summers’ Hidden Agenda:
Women, Men & the 80-Hour Work Week

by Susan Carol Losh, Ph.D.

Having been involved with gender research for some 30 years I want to second and extend the cogent article by Diane Halpern, and comment on Lawrence Summers’ comments on gender differences in the sciences.

In a book chapter I wrote 18 years ago (S. Losh-Hesselbart, “Development of Gender Roles.” In M. Sussman and S. Steinmetz (eds.), Handbook of Marriage and the Family. New York: Praeger, 1987, 535–563.) I noted, as Halpern does, the same set of probable biologically influenced sex differences. They’re pretty ubiquitous in the research literature. I also noted that these could not possibly account for the huge 98-2 percentage differences that existed at the time among engineers, physicists, chemists and the like and that obviously there were other processes operating as well.

I have been working with the NSF Surveys of Public Understanding of Science and Technology for many years. We see sex differences among adults, in that women express more interest in life and medical sciences and men more interest in “generic” science and new technology. In other research I am working on, these are differences that show up, certainly, by kindergarten. If no intervention is made – and usually there is not – these sex differences widen over time and almost certainly guide career choices among young adults.

But, and this is critical, virtually all of the responses to Lawrence Summers’ comments center around biology and gender. Dr. Halpern’s comments are more thoroughly researched than most, and her admonitions that we can’t judge individuals by gender averages eloquently put. But has everyone forgotten this point was number two in President Summers’ list to explain the relative scarcity of women in certain branches of science? Number one, in his opinion, was that women were simply unwilling to put in those 80-hour work weeks to become proficient scientists qualified to receive tenure at institutions such as Harvard.

There are so many problems with reason number one I hate to even get started with it. First are the myths about scientists, held by significant portions of the American public: scientists are odd, peculiar loners, irreligious, who work in laboratories that are potentially dangerous for all their waking hours. I refer the reader to research by Mary Frank Fox, who describes the fallacies of these myths far more elegantly than I can. I’ve been in academia for 30 years and I know how much academics love to trot out those 80-hour work weeks—and how untrue this generally is. (I still think we are worthy of financial support even if we work “only” 60-hour weeks, by the way.)

But Summers’ comments, and those of his responders, overlook the huge increase in women medical school and law school students, earning degrees in both and entering these fields. The same arguments were trotted out when I was a kid to explain the scarcity of women doctors and lawyers. And yet thousands upon thousands of women now appear willing to put in those 80-hour work weeks in medical residencies and internships, and to make partner in law firms. How come we have that motivation for medicine and law but not for physics?

Might some of this have to do with the potential for financial reward in these two areas? Or, I suspect, the increased possibility of self-employment, which means bypassing prejudice and discrimination found among employers in a way that is far less possible for academic physical scientists or engineers? In any case, lest we forget, Summers cited lower motivation, not field independence or other possible sex-linked traits, as his number one explanation for low female participation in certain fields, conveniently overlooking that we are prepared to put in the hours in other fields.

The hidden agenda behind Summers’ number one reason, I suspect, reduces to the common claims of work-family conflict among women but not, supposedly among men. In a paper I wrote 25 years ago, I pointed out that whenever the question has been asked to both sexes, both women and men, in almost identical distributions, rank family as more important to them than paid employment. I also think it’s important to point out that 80 hour work weeks probably produce people who are exhausted but not terribly more creative or productive. I don’t want to visit a medical resident who has been working for 36 straight hours and neither should anyone else. I don’t think a young attorney breaking her or his back to make partner will give any case I have the attention I feel it deserves.

We need to get past the mythology of what makes creative people productive, past the American ethos that all can be ours if we just put enough hours into it, and do solid research on the topic. We don’t need occupational stereotypes to scare talented youth of either sex away from science, and I hope at some point prominent academicians such as the President of Harvard become good enough scholars to move past inaccurate clichés.

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