King’s Pushback

Introduction: This is part of an article entitled, “The Real Reasons All the Top Chess Players Are Men,” written by Wei Ji Ma. It was published in Slate Magazine on December 11th. In this piece, tries to counter a common claim that men are inherently better at chess than women by considering a number of social factors which Wei argues could better explain known disparities between the number of successful men and women participating in competitive chess.

Key Facts: The Cable Series, “The Queen’s Gambit,” features a story-line in which a woman fights her way up the ranks of professional chess to become the world champion. When the Queen’s Gambit was released, it triggered a wave of discussions about the gap between men and women in the top ranks of chess competition. Several voices argued that the women are under-represented in chess championships for reasons of inherent inability. The author of this argument makes a case for social construction as a more likely cause of the difference. The passage below focuses specifically on the impact of the belief in inherent ability on the social construction of gender differences relevant to competitive chess.

Text: “The idea that innate chess ability is critical for success—rather than a commitment to studying the game to get better and better at it—might itself keep the participation gap wide in the first place. Andrei Cimpian, Princeton University philosopher Sarah-Jane Leslie, and colleagues studied 30 academic disciplines in the U.S. and found a strong negative correlation between the pervasiveness of innate-ability beliefs and the proportion of female Ph.D.s. Moreover, very young children already internalize beliefs that men are more brilliant than women. A 2017 study showed that 6-year-old girls in the U.S. are already less likely to believe that members of their gender are “really, really smart,” and that they begin avoiding activities that are said to be for children who are “really, really smart.” There we have it: a shockingly early start for the participation gap in chess.”

ANALYSIS

Comments: To fully assess the value of the original argument, the passage above would have to be considered alongside Wei’s account of several other confounding variables which might explain the relative lack of successful women in competitive chess, as well as his critique of the case made for inherent ability. Doing so would of course put the analysis beyond the scope of a simple exercise. So, we are just dealing with this passage here, but that does touch upon questions as to how one might best think of the specific conclusion to be drawn from this specific passage. It should be kept in mind that Wei isn’t trying to settle the whole issue in this one passage; he is using it to establish one point in a larger argument.

Statements: This argument is pretty straight forward. I have omitted a hedge from the first statement.

[1] “The idea that innate chess ability is critical for success—rather than a commitment to studying the game to get better and better at it— …keeps the participation gap wide in the first place.

[2] Andrei Cimpian, Princeton University philosopher Sarah-Jane Leslie, and colleagues studied 30 academic disciplines in the U.S. and found a strong negative correlation between the pervasiveness of innate-ability beliefs and the proportion of female Ph.D.s.

Moreover

[3] Very young children already internalize beliefs that men are more brilliant than women.

[4] A 2017 study showed that 6-year-old girls in the U.S. are already less likely to believe that members of their gender are “really, really smart,”

[5] [The same study showed that] they begin avoiding activities that are said to be for children who are “really, really smart.”

[6] There we have it: a shockingly early start for the participation gap in chess.

Diagram: The argument appears to produce three separate inferences in serial form with the final conclusion being the first sentence.

Discussion: The main themes associated with this argument would include; Begging the Question, Causation, Hedges, Statistics.

Begging the Question: There is at least one way of reading the first inference which would render it a circular argument.

Causation: The essential point of the argument is to assign a causative factor to the gender disparities in chess. This passage of this article makes the case that belief in innate talent creates a self-fulfilling prophesy, depressing interest in chess by women reducing expectations for their performance. These two studies cited may not be sufficient to demonstrate the social expectations outlined in these studies, though they are probably sufficient to undermine the case for innate ability as a sufficient explanation in it itself.

In the end, a more exhaustive account of relevant studies would be needed to account for all the variables.

Hedges: Notice that the opening lines of this argument use the phrasing “might be” in setting up the case that belief in innate ability constitutes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Most likely, this reflects the nature of the publication. In effect, the author is turning out a quick response to the topic at hand rather than the results of exhaustive research. The hedge this reminds us that his conclusions are tentative at best, offered as food for thought rather than as a final verdict on the topic at hand.

In omitting the hedge from the wording of the first statement, I am treating them more as a kind of affect display than a feature of the statement in question. Some might disagree with this approach, suggesting that the actual question is merely whether or not belief in innate ability MIGHT deter women from participating in chess. This would water the topic down to the point of being pointless, so I think it better to treat the claim in question as a solid assertion of the link, and the presence of the hedge as indicating something about the relative confidence of the author rather than as a feature of the claim in question.

Statistics: The argument refers to 3 separate findings from 2 separate studies. Whether or not these are enough to establish the truth of the author’s conclusion is something of an open question. Barring specific questions about the data in the study and/or the conclusions drawn from it, a reader might still be justified in wishing to consider additional variables. Still, the studies cited above do seem to provide some reason to believe, as Wei does, that belief in innate ability is itself a factor in the gender disparities present in competitive chess.

Evaluation: I am just going to comment briefly on each of the 3 inferences in this argument.

4->3: Here the author is essentially taking a specific study, to the effect that young girls already equal intelligence with gender, to demonstrate a larger claim that young children generally show this belief.

One might raise some questions as to whether the study in question demonstrates that female children are coming under the influence of stereotypes at age 6 or simply becoming aware of innate differences. Few social scientists at this point would entertain the latter option, and the authors appear to take it as axiomatic that belief in gender disparity is a stereotype, but as this author of this argument uses the study to show that social construction is the cause of gender disparities in chess rather than innate ability, this builds a degree of circularity into the argument, at least as applied to this first inference.

At least as stated, the inference from 4 to 3 appears to be invalid. Additional information may change this, but the information is not present in the immediate argument presented above.

3+5->6: Statement 3 is a general claim about the early impact of belief in gender stereotypes dealing with intelligence and statement suggests that at least one study shoes that girls as young as 6 begin avoiding activities they associate with it. Statement 6 attributes gender disparities in relevant activities to these factors.

The premises certainly do make a plausible case for the conclusion. How convincing one finds that case is another question. It would be reasonable to ask for consideration of additional variables, some of which are dealt with in the rest of the article and/or even to look for more exhaustive studies on the topic at hand. Of course, it would also be reasonable to expect of someone holding out for such information that they would look at the research in question if it was offered. If that is too time consuming, then it might well be argued, the material at hand ought to be sufficient for at least a tentative conclusion.

Note that the circularity mentioned in the first inference based on the study of young girls is less relevant to this inference insofar as the observation that girls begin avoiding tasks associated with innate intelligence does establish a behavioral impact of the belief in question. Whether or not there might be some case for the accuracy of such beliefs, the case for a behavioral impact of such beliefs is supported by the study.

2+6->1: This inference combines the case for early avoidance of intellectual activities by girls as a result of stereotyping with a parallel observation about a relative lack of adult female participation in scholarly fields strongly associated with innate ability to make the case for belief in innate ability as a deterrent to female participation in chess.

As with the previous inference, the argument makes a plausible case. Whether or not it is convincing is another question.

Final Thoughts: Overall, I do find this to be a persuasive argument, but I believe at least part of this is due to the fact that I am inclined to accept the assumptions of a social constructivist position at the outset. As a case in favor of such a position, and against the view that there are innate differences between boys and girls on skills relevant to chess, I think it is still sufficient to establish the relevance of at least one competing variable, the reaction to belief in innate differences has an impact on human behavior. To rule out any underlying innate difference probably just takes more than you can accomplish with the paragraph above and many even with the article from which it is drawn.

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