Why are (the best) women so good at chess? Participation rates and gender differences in intellectual domains
Bilalic (Merim), Smallbone (Kieran), McLeod (Peter) & Gobet (Fernand)
Source: Procedings of the Royal Society B (2009) 276, 1161-1165
Paper - Abstract

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Authors’ Abstract

  1. A popular explanation for the small number of women at the top level of intellectually demanding activities from chess to science appeals to biological differences in the intellectual abilities of men and women.
  2. An alternative explanation is that the extreme values in a large sample are likely to be greater than those in a small one. Although the performance of the 100 best German male chess players is better than that of the 100 best German women, we show that 96 per cent of the observed difference would be expected given the much greater number of men who play chess. There is little left for biological or cultural explanations to account for.
  3. In science, where there are many more male than female participants, this statistical sampling explanation, rather than differences in intellectual ability, may also be the main reason why women are under-represented at the top end.

  1. This is a sensible idea – intuitively, “smaller” bell-curves of the same standard deviation will “stick out” less at the extremes.
  2. The paper does consider the obvious retort – that the sample size for females is smaller for reasons that are associated with cognitive differences – ie. more females drop out from the higher echelons of the game because they are less good than their male counterparts.
  3. This objection is somewhat brushed aside as “begging the question”, but I agree that in chess social issues are likely to affect participation differentially.
  4. It is not so clear that this generalises to science and other cognitive domains where under-representation is also manifest.
  5. The authors admit that the standard deviation (if not the mean) of IQ1 scores is greater in men than women, which (if IQ2 scores mean anything) gives prima facie evidence that men should outshine women at the extremes, and the burden of proof should be to give clear evidence why this is not the case.
  6. I suspect that these questions are impervious to evidence. The unreasonable success of Jews and other ethnic groups based on sample size has to be explained away culturally as well. And it might be so …


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