Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Much Ado About Nothing

I’ve not commented on the brouhaha that has surrounded Harvard President Lawrence Summers’ comment at a conference last week that the relative lack of women in math and science might reflect innate differences rather than the effects of socialization. Let me do so now. Bottom line: *shrug*. I think the whole situation is one giant overreaction based more on kneejerk reactions than on rational thinking. Like it or not, there are some traits that tend to be more common in one gender than the other. Is that true in this particular case? I don’t know. I haven’t seen the research on it. But I don’t think it’s a heinous sin to make the suggestion that it might be. And I certainly don’t think it should cause anyone to throw up or black out, as MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins told the media she was going to do if she hadn’t walked out on Summers’ speech.

The primary reason for the overreaction, I think, is that it is based on a crude caricature of the position being objected to. To listen to those who are screaming bloody murder over the comments (NOW has actually called for him to be removed as Harvard president for his horrible apostasy) you’d think that he had announced that women are stupid and men are smart. But he didn’t say anything like that. And the position that genetic differences may account for some of the differences between male and female achievement in different fields of study doesn’t say anything as idiotic as that. Steven Pinker, the MIT cognitive neuroscientist who is one of the foremost authorities on the question of genetic inputs into behavior and aptitudes, had this to say:

First, let’s be clear what the hypothesis is–every one of Summers’ critics has misunderstood it. The hypothesis is, first, that the statistical distributions of men’s and women’s quantitative and spatial abilities are not identical–that the average for men may be a bit higher than the average for women, and that the variance for men might be a bit higher than the variance for women (both implying that there would be a slightly higher proportion of men at the high end of the scale). It does not mean that all men are better at quantitative abilities than all women! That’s why it would be immoral and illogical to discriminate against individual women even if it were shown that some of the statistidcal differences were innate.

Second, the hypothesis is that differences in abilities might be one out of several factors that explain differences in the statistical representation of men and women in various professions. It does not mean that it is the only factor. Still, if it is one factor, we cannot reflexively assume that different statistical representation of men and women in science and engineering is itself proof of discrimination. Incidentally, another sign that we are dealing with a taboo is that when it comes to this issue, ordinarily intelligent scientists suddenly lose their ability to think quantitatively and warp statistical hypotheses into crude dichotomies.

As far as the evidence is concerned, I’m not sure what “ample” means, but there is certainly enough evidence for the hypothesis to be taken seriously.

For example, quantitative and spatial skills vary within a gender according to levels of sex hormones. And in samples of gifted students who are given every conceivable encouragement to excel in science and math, far more men than women expressed an interest in pursuing science and math.

Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post also pointed out the same thing:

Summers (even in his earlier, unexpurgated form) wasn’t saying that no individual woman could be a stellar scientist, or mathematician, or engineer, only that overall one gender might be more inclined in that direction than the other. Indeed, if that did prove to be the case, it would be all the more important for educators at every level to nurture and encourage girls and women with scientific promise, and it would make those who achieve at the highest levels all the more valuable in a modern university, or any modern workforce conscious of the cost of gender disparities.

Look, I am a feminist myself. I was a research assistant for a prominent feminist scholar in college. But there is a point at which a rational and mature feminism gives way to a childish feminism that is as intolerant as the misogyny that it responds to, and I think this situation demonstrates that to be true. The hyper-emotional response of the MIT biologist exemplifies the resulting overreaction. As Ruth Marcus said:

“I felt I was going to be sick,” said MIT biology professor Nancy Hopkins, who had led an investigation into hiring practices there. She walked out during Summers’s remarks. “My heart was pounding and my breath was shallow,” she said. “I was extremely upset.” Was there a feminist around — myself included — who didn’t wince at this bring-out-the-smelling-salts statement?

No, she is certainly not the only one. If you become physically ill at the mere suggestion that there might be some other view with merit, then perhaps this whole academic thing isn’t really for you. Universities are supposed to be a place where ideas are debated, not silenced. Summers even announced right up front in his speech that he was going to present some provocative ideas. I’ll say the same thing to the group throwing a fit over this that I say to the constant blather we hear from conservative students about their teachers being “anti-Christian” or “anti-american: get over it. If you’re in an academic community, either as a student or a professor, you are going to run into ideas you don’t like. You’re going to run into people who say things that royally piss you off. You have two choices when faced with such ideas: you can fall down on the floor and kick your feet and scream about how oppressed you are, or you can engage those ideas, debate them, and either prove them wrong or perhaps find out that you were wrong.

Unfortunately, those who choose the first reaction also often try to get people fired for daring to say things they don’t like, and they are trying to do that to Summers as well (just as at another Ivy League school, some conservatives are trying to get a professor fired for supporting some positions taken by militant Islamic groups that commit terrorism). The irony is that these two groups don’t realize how much they are behaving like each other. I think Pinker nailed it when asked whether Summers’ remarks were within the pale of legitimate academic discourse:

Good grief, shouldn’t everything be within the pale of legitimate academic discourse, as long as it is presented with some degree of rigor? That’s the difference between a university and a madrassa…

Look, the truth cannot be offensive. Perhaps the hypothesis is wrong, but how would we ever find out whether it is wrong if it is “offensive” even to consider it? People who storm out of a meeting at the mention of a hypothesis, or declare it taboo or offensive without providing arguments or evidence, don’t get the concept of a university or free inquiry.

Amen, Brother Pinker. Amen.