I'm halfway through finishing my new book about scientific research on women and sex differences, and one issue that comes up again and again when I'm telling people about my work is this: "I know you say that men and women are equally intelligent, but then where are all the female scientists?" Or, "I know you say that girls don't prefer pink, but my daughter loves it, and that's not because of anything I've done." There is nothing more difficult for someone with scientific evidence that challenges people's preconceptions to face down than the Teflon-coated power of the preconceptions themselves. It is perfectly possible for there to be more male than female professors without that also having something to do with biological sex differences in intelligence. It's also perfectly possible your daughter likes pink, without that being an innate preference that all girls are born with. Yet we so often trust the evidence of our own eyes over the statistics or the scientific studies.
Especially when it comes to gender, we far too easily leap to the conclusion that the little we observe around us must be true of everyone, everywhere, and for all time. The technical name for this is confirmation bias, and it's one of the unfortunate human habits that we can't seem to shake. We tend to interpret new information in a way that supports our beliefs or prejudices, and if the new information doesn't, we tend to ignore it. If it doesn't fit into your worldview, you probably won't like it. So while we might find it hard, we need to be just as sceptical of research that confirms what we think as we are of research that doesn't.
Too many bad scientific hypotheses have been built on the statement: "We know men and women are different because we can see it." Everyone loves to find out that women really can't read maps or that men really are rubbish listeners. But just like your dad not being good at listening isn't good evidence in favour, neither is a school hall full of empathic, attentive men proof that men are equally good listeners as women. Science works (or should work) at a far deeper level when it comes to answering these questions. That kind of proof requires hard statistical analysis, psychological studies, behavioural data, cultural and historical context, an understanding of social factors... all things more rigorous than anything you can observe with your own eyes.
The picture of the mouse is courtesy of Aleksey Pogrebnoj-Alexandroff.