September 3, 2010
September 3, 2010
September 3, 2010
The new media have caught on for a reason. Knowledge is increasing exponentially; human brainpower and waking hours are not. Fortunately, the Internet and information technologies are helping us manage, search and retrieve our collective intellectual output at different scales, from Twitter and previews to e-books and online encyclopedias. Far from making us stupid, these technologies are the only things that will keep us smart.
New forms of media have always caused moral panics: the printing press, newspapers, paperbacks and television were all once denounced as threats to their consumers’ brainpower and moral fiber.
So too with electronic technologies. PowerPoint, we’re told, is reducing discourse to bullet points. Search engines lower our intelligence, encouraging us to skim on the surface of knowledge rather than dive to its depths. Twitter is shrinking our attention spans.
But such panics often fail basic reality checks. When comic books were accused of turning juveniles into delinquents in the 1950s, crime was falling to record lows, just as the denunciations of video games in the 1990s coincided with the great American crime decline. The decades of television, transistor radios and rock videos were also decades in which I.Q. scores rose continuously.
For a reality check today, take the state of science, which demands high levels of brainwork and is measured by clear benchmarks of discovery. These days scientists are never far from their e-mail, rarely touch paper and cannot lecture without PowerPoint. If electronic media were hazardous to intelligence, the quality of science would be plummeting. Yet discoveries are multiplying like fruit flies, and progress is dizzying. Other activities in the life of the mind, like philosophy, history and cultural criticism, are likewise flourishing, as anyone who has lost a morning of work to the Web site Arts & Letters Daily can attest.
Critics of new media sometimes use science itself to press their case, citing research that shows how “experience can change the brain.” But cognitive neuroscientists roll their eyes at such talk. Yes, every time we learn a fact or skill the wiring of the brain changes; it’s not as if the information is stored in the pancreas. But the existence of neural plasticity does not mean the brain is a blob of clay pounded into shape by experience.
Experience does not revamp the basic information-processing capacities of the brain. Speed-reading programs have long claimed to do just that, but the verdict was rendered by Woody Allen after he read “War and Peace” in one sitting: “It was about Russia.” Genuine multitasking, too, has been exposed as a myth, not just by laboratory studies but by the familiar sight of an S.U.V. undulating between lanes as the driver cuts deals on his cellphone.
Moreover, as the psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons show in their new book “The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us,” the effects of experience are highly specific to the experiences themselves. If you train people to do one thing (recognize shapes, solve math puzzles, find hidden words), they get better at doing that thing, but almost nothing else. Music doesn’t make you better at math, conjugating Latin doesn’t make you more logical, brain-training games don’t make you smarter. Accomplished people don’t bulk up their brains with intellectual calisthenics; they immerse themselves in their fields. Novelists read lots of novels, scientists read lots of science.
The effects of consuming electronic media are also likely to be far more limited than the panic implies. Media critics write as if the brain takes on the qualities of whatever it consumes, the informational equivalent of “you are what you eat.” As with primitive peoples who believe that eating fierce animals will make them fierce, they assume that watching quick cuts in rock videos turns your mental life into quick cuts or that reading bullet points and Twitter postings turns your thoughts into bullet points and Twitter postings…
September 3, 2010
Barely four decades after Marcus Welby, M.D. personified the practice of medicine, it’s come to this. Recruiters are casting their nets as wide as they can in the hope of attracting a qualified male family physician to coach trainees in the art of the profession. “We’re holding out for a guy,” says Dr. Perle Feldman, director of the Family Medicine Residency Program at North York General Hospital. Feldman is trying to fill just one of the program’s academic teaching positions (of which there are typically four) with a male doctor. Right now, the entire family medicine teaching unit at the Toronto hospital is female, Feldman explains. Not only is the hospital-based teaching staff exclusively female, but the community family practices where the students learn the ropes are all led by female physicians, too, she says.
“It’s a big problem,” she sighs. “When I was training in the early eighties, there were mostly bearded, avuncular male family doctors.” Now, women predominate. Why is this a problem? “It’s more balanced, it’s more advantageous to have different styles,” she says. The team is looking for the best possible contender. “But if it’s a choice between two equally good candidates, we’d choose a man.”
Exactly the opposite movement is afoot in corporate governance. Women hold just 14% of board seats on Financial Post 500 companies, according to the Catalyst 2009 Census, which also reported that 45% of publicly held companies had no female directors. The most common explanation for the gender gap is that discrimination is keeping women from top positions—and the most commonly proposed solution is to forcefully even out the numbers via positive discrimination, or through quotas mandating a 50-50 division.
And not just in the boardroom. In the construction industry, for example, the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada has recently proposed that anyone planning to build ought to “employ a gender-based hiring quota as a condition of contract for their builders.”
But what if women are deliberately avoiding certain jobs—such as 80-hour-a-week Up in the Air-style corporate gigs, or as welders on construction sites—in order to pursue their interests in other areas? Several surveys of university graduates indicate that the majority of women put a priority on being able to make a difference in their work, and the ability to work flexible hours, which might propel them toward a career in public law, counselling or social work, for example.
Could it be that the institutionalized sexism in our culture is now a less powerful force than the choices freely made by the work force? On one hand, women, largely the higher-achieving sex in the classroom, simply prefer medicine over software engineering or bond trading. On the other, men gravitate toward business and computer science, and away from jobs that require lots of teaching, discussion and “touchy-feely” content, as Feldman has discovered. In short, what if the received wisdom—that equal opportunity for the sexes should automatically create a 50-50 result in every occupation—is just a dated ideal that doesn’t take into account people’s actual preferences?
In just a few decades, several formerly male professions have become primarily female domains. And this reversed gender gap has engendered another grassroots movement: As women start to populate certain disciplines, they’re beginning to redefine the landscape. Meanwhile, they’re also voting with their feet to leave areas they’ve entered, such as the C-suite and law, which are struggling to adjust to women’s expectations of greater flexibility, work-life balance and autonomy. The result is a gender-divided professional universe where, contrary to popular belief, men are thin on the ground these days.
The struggle to find a man interested in a prestigious academic position is just one indication of the way the professions in North America are tilting more female every year. It’s a marked trend in nearly every field requiring an advanced university degree, but most extreme in health care. Physiotherapy is 78% female, speech pathology 96%…