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she blinded me with science

Rebecca Watson on Women’s Intuition and Other Myths

Rebecca Watson, head of, one of our favorite sites, gave a talk for the Center for Inquiry, exploring the concept of “intuition” as it is attributed to women, and whether there is actually any real bit of truth in the stereotype that women make up for not being strongly logical, or, you know, intelligent, by having the mysterious power of “women’s intuition.”

Key completely out of context quote:

“It’s like firebombing your vagina.”

(via Skepchick.)


  • Null

    I’d disagree. I’d kind of go with Simon Baron Cohen on this one, from both personal experience and the limited research out there: women *tend* to have a higher emotional quotient, and men, particularly geeks, *tend* to be more systemizing-oriented, which helps for understanding physics and hurts for understanding people (which is usually more useful for most people in real life). Biological or cultural? Who knows?

    It’s not an ‘all or none’ thing, but rather a matter of overlapping Gaussian curves. Men are taller than women, but there are 6-foot-high women, and they frequently feel out of place because both sexes give funny looks to couples where the man is shorter.

    Female geeks (and what do you call a woman with a NASA sticker on her laptop?) of course are an exception to this rule. (And frequently would be expected to have defective intuition as well, of course.) How many female geeks do you know with mostly male friends, particularly in high school or earlier? Just because average tendencies exist don’t mean that there aren’t exceptions to those tendencies, and people who don’t fit their ‘expected type’ can be made quite miserable by people’s expectations of them. (Empathetic men get it in the nuts from more macho men all the time…’sissy’ is a lot harsher an insult than ‘tomboy’)

    I’d be more in favor of people trying to be understanding of people who are different (though I guess that’s too much to ask from society in general) rather than trying to claim that no biological differences exist. I never understood why all men have to be perfectly manly and women have to be perfectly feminine, but I’m probably not enough of a Republican.

  • Anonymous

    I’m not sure what you’re disagreeing with.  Rebecca’s claim is not that women and men are biologically indistinguishable.  Rebecca’s claim is that “women’s intuition” is a concept rooted poorly in science, but strongly in a desire to otherize and diminish women.

    She happens to be correct, and cites scientific literature that backs up her claim.  If you don’t want to watch the video to see it, here’s a link to a summary of some of the studies she mentions:

  • Anonymous

    I love some of the questions at the end.  There’s a guy who spends a minute mansplaining about womankind’s terrible habit of shutting down conversations by appealing to women’s intuition, and how this is an insufferable insult to his perfect, logical mind.  I desperately wanted Rebecca to say, “Dude, they know there’s no women’s intuition.  They just want you to go away because you’re creeping them out.”

    Then there’s another guy who claims that women who ask him for car repairs (who he obliquely compares to children) are actually just needful little emotional vampires, who only ask because they need “a shoulder to cry on”.  Because, you know, when my car breaks down, the thing I need first and foremost is moral support.  The only reason I even call AAA is because the suicide hotline won’t take my calls anymore.

  • Anonymous

    Ummm… Why does being understanding of people who are different require biological differences?

    For an excellent disassembling of Simon Baron Cohen, complete with citations, check out Cordelia Fine’s “Delusions of Gender.” It’s rather shocking how much of the neurosexism that’s all the rage these days is based on pretty much nothing.

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  • Joseph Caine

    The Mary Sue AND Skepchick, together at last? It’s like my dreams of a better world have started to come true… Thanks for posting this!

  • Kristin Frederickson

    I watched this all the way through and loved it. Feminism and science go together like peanut butter and jelly.

  • Barbara A. Drescher

    From what she presented, it looks a lot to me like what Rebecca did was Google “women’s intuition” and parrot some of the top hits that happened to support her claim. I don’t know what you did to determine that she “she happens to be correct”, but I disagree.

    I have written a brief overview on the topic and listed a number of sources for further reading. This post will be available on Swift (blog for the JREF at tomorrow (5/31/11). The overview may not convince anyone, but it takes much more than a blog post to explain why some findings carry more weight than others and why the conclusions of researchers like Icke are limited.

  • C

    Rebecca Watson was earlier called on her lack of ability to research adequately on the topic of body image by Benjamin Radford:
    She has no qualifications in psychology, feminism or philosophy or any relevant science field – apart from appearing on a podcast that features a neuroscientist and having a blog that features maybe one scientist (an entomologist?).  Just because Jenny McCarthy or Depak Chopra has latched onto the term to use for their own purposes, doesn’t mean intuition should be discounted [we don't discount quantum physics for the same reason; new-age adoption of terms shouldn't discredit the reality behind the term misused].  If she was talking on the one topic she is qualifed in — advertising — then I’d heed her claims a little more seriously.

    For example, the work she cites by Richard Wiseman is only a demonstration at a science festival and not peer reviewed.  Men and women differ in many ways and understanding expressions is one; women are not more intuitive in standard definitions but they do dominate with specific TYPES of intuitive thinking while men are better at other types.  BTW — Psychology Today isn’t exactly promoting peer reviewed research [weren't they criticised recently for sexist attitudes?], but it’s understandable how myths like the ones Watson propagated persist — especially when the target audience associates intuition with new-age practitioners.

    For better research on the strength of intuition, I suggest authors like Rew and Barrow, 2007 on how intuition in female nurses is given serious consideration: a meta-analysis showing that there is support that intuitive experiences increase with experience and expertise and it ‘should be combined with objective, empirical evidence when evaluating a patient’s condition and in planning care.’  There’s also Pretz and Folse, 2011: ‘if experience provides valuable information on associations between patient symptoms and outcomes, then the use of intuition in clinical practice should be encouraged.’   Intuition isn’t the skeptical person’s enemy.

    Rebecca Watson is giving an entertaining but flawed opinion based on minimal research and shouldn’t be considered as an authority on the matter.  Why CFI is presenting her as some kind of “expert” should be questioned.  I look forward to Barbara Drescher’s article on the JREF site.

  • Barbara A. Drescher

    I wrote about the tussle with Ben Radford as well: I think it is important for people promoting skepticism to be called on failures to be skeptical. Agendas, regardless of how noble they might be, should never be promoted by sacrificing integrity. 

    Regarding the literature you cited, there is quite a bit of research on intuition in medicine. I did not cite it for two reasons: 1) specific fields tend to sample homogeneous groups and therefore the findings are limited to those groups and 2) intuition in medicine often does more harm than good. Doctors, for example, tend to diagnose within the first two minutes of a patient’s visit. This is great when they are correct (and they are much more often then not), however, it is dangerous when they are wrong, especially when they are not open to being wrong (which is the rule, not the exception). It can also be extremely frustrating to the patient who feels that doctors are not listening.