Adventures in Ethics and Science

The title of John Tierney’s recent column in the New York Times, “Daring to Discuss Women’s Potential in Science”, suggests that Tierney thinks there’s something dangerous about even raising the subject:

The House of Representatives has passed what I like to think of as Larry’s Law. The official title of this legislation is “Fulfilling the potential of women in academic science and engineering,” but nothing did more to empower its advocates than the controversy over a speech by Lawrence H. Summers when he was president of Harvard.

This proposed law, if passed by the Senate, would require the White House science adviser to oversee regular “workshops to enhance gender equity.” At the workshops, to be attended by researchers who receive federal money and by the heads of science and engineering departments at universities, participants would be given before-and-after “attitudinal surveys” and would take part in “interactive discussions or other activities that increase the awareness of the existence of gender bias.”

I’m all in favor of women fulfilling their potential in science, but I feel compelled, at the risk of being shipped off to one of these workshops, to ask a couple of questions:

1) Would it be safe during the “interactive discussions” for someone to mention the new evidence supporting Dr. Summers’s controversial hypothesis about differences in the sexes’ aptitude for math and science?

2) How could these workshops reconcile the “existence of gender bias” with careful studies that show that female scientists fare as well as, if not better than, their male counterparts in receiving academic promotions and research grants?

I’m not up for a detailed reply to Tierney today, nor a serious look at the literature he mentions (or at the literature he doesn’t mention). Maybe I’ll be able to double back for that once I clear some of the more pressing items from my to-do list. But I would like to throw out a few observations that are relevant to the discussion.

1. My experience (I know, N=1, so take it for what its worth) would suggest that it’s extremely safe to assert a proven different in the sexes’ aptitudes for math and science that is rooted in biological factors — even without pointing to empirical research to back up this assertion (and certainly, while pointing to a body of research the asserter has never bothered to read). A parade of people have made this assertion to me, my parents, my classmates, my children, with nary a detectable repercussion. To my knowledge none of these people have been “shipped off to a workshop” on account of their having claimed that biology makes boys better at math and science.

And you know what’s almost as common as claiming that there’s some biological basis that makes boy-brains better at math and science than girl-brains? Prefacing that sort of claim with a statement that suggests that someone in earshot of the claim (a feminist, probably) has the desire and the power to exact punishment for the utterance of this daring claim.

This is not to say it’s not a dangerous assertion to make. You run the risk of being called to account for knowing what the research actually says, or of being faced with reasonable criticisms of the research methodology you must answer, or of being asked to acknowledge and discuss other empirical studies that suggest different conclusions. You also run the risk of having to grapple with the question of how, more generally, we can ensure that research on questions like human intelligence does not reify our preexisting individual and cultural biases.

But hey, even getting out of bed in the morning is not risk-free.

2. I haven’t read the text of the legislation to which Tierney refers, but I’m pretty skeptical of the power of mandated workshops to enhance much of anything beyond time spent attending workshops and photocopying bills.

3. On the general subject of claims for which there does or does not exist relevant empirical evidence, are there any published studies (or any research projects currently underway) to explore the connection Tierney, Summers, et al. seem to assume between being in the extreme right tail of laboratory measures of mathematical and scientific aptitude (like the math section of the Scholastic Aptitude Test) and having the chops to “to get a doctorate in science or to win tenure at a top university”? Because it strikes me as likely that there may be some crucial competencies required to do cutting-edge scientific research that the SAT just doesn’t measure.

Indeed, if tests like the SAT are such good measures of scientific potential, couldn’t universities and federal funders of scientific research save themselves a lot of time by only training, hiring, and funding (potential) scientists with sufficiently high SAT scores, regardless of gender? Is there reason to believe that approach would deliver excellent scientific research without relying on such an “excess” of graduate students and postdocs?

No? Then maybe the role of (measurable) native intelligence in scientific success is more complicated than some people are daring to acknowledge.

(Tierney’s framing of the Larry Summers controversy also bugs me, but I’ll simply point you to how the controversy looked from here when it went down.)

Comments

  1. #1 Mike Olson
    June 8, 2010

    I know it is only pseudo-science..but years ago I took the Myers Briggs test and it gave me a huge push in the direction of what I’d find most interesting. At any rate, as I looked at this stuff, and realized it’s limitations, somewhere I found something that indicated rough percentages for various preferences on the Myers-Briggs scale. Although generally, based on gender all preferences were evenly split, on the T and F preference men scored as T 60% of the time and women scored a T 40% of the time. Again, I’m not suggesting this test is a reliable research tool…but for me it suggested that any person of either gender could have any sort of personality…but statistically, some personalities would more frequently occur than others. Since personality is going to drive interests and motivations…it would seem you are going to find greater numbers of one gender in some professions than in others…I know it is a lot of speculation and not valid research…but for me it provided a logical answer and appears to work.

  2. #2 S Seguin
    June 8, 2010

    Dr. Free-Ride, I do hope you’ll have time for a longer response later. I really value your insight. As I read Tierny’s column, I was sort of transfixed on your second point. Being the smartest person around isn’t going to guarantee you success. I suppose I can forgive him not understanding that success in academia isn’t just the natural fate of brilliant people, that there are vast social and bureaucratic obstacles to to overcome on that route. Maybe if the question were phrased more like, those at the extreme right tail of intelligence aren’t universally granted tenured positions at top institutions, what is holding them back? he could become interested.

    I am appalled that someone with such a vast national platform is allowed to publish such ignorance.

  3. #3 Dick
    June 8, 2010

    It doesn’t matter what the research says. The main thing is that activist feminists are trying to destroy western science. Everyone must be alerted to this danger.

  4. #4 Janet D. Stemwedel
    June 8, 2010

    Christina Agapakis at Oscillator has posted her response to the same Tierney column. Go read it.

  5. #5 David Bruggeman
    June 8, 2010

    The ‘bill’ he refers to is actually a three-page section out of the 246-page America COMPETES reauthorization bill. But he links to the whole bloody thing, and glosses over the difference between passing a short bill and passing a much longer bill that has some sections that *might* be worth examining further. In other words, the merits of the rest of the bill were what prompted Congress to pass it, not the section on gender bias workshops.

    Doing such a sloppy job of introducing the topic makes it tougher for me to engage the rest of the piece in a serious manner.

  6. #6 Tony Jeremiah
    June 8, 2010

    1) Would it be safe during the “interactive discussions” for someone to mention the new evidence supporting Dr. Summers’s controversial hypothesis about differences in the sexes’ aptitude for math and science?

    “This last finding is highly informative. The model indicated that there was no difference between boys and girls in how they are affected by genetic and environmental factors. Theoretically, if girls’ science achievement was due to limited aptitudes (related to some neurocognitive difference for example), they would be affected by environmental and genetic factors differently than boys (for example by being less responsive to the same environmental conditions or to the same ‘math gene’). Thus, the authors concluded that absence of difference between the sexes in how these potentially causal factors influence their science achievement suggests that the possible sex differences in the high end of science performance “may be due to attitudes rather than aptitudes”.

    http://www.child-psych.org/2009/06/boys-girls-science-sex-intellectual-differences.html

    2) How could these workshops reconcile the “existence of gender bias” with careful studies that show that female scientists fare as well as, if not better than, their male counterparts in receiving academic promotions and research grants?

    “participants would be given before-and-after “attitudinal surveys” and would take part in “interactive discussions or other activities that increase the awareness of the existence of gender bias”

  7. #7 jakeb
    June 8, 2010

    Ah, that courageous John Tierney, speaking truth to power once again. What a wanker.

  8. #8 Snarkyxanf
    June 9, 2010

    But a tenured physicist at a leading university, Dr. Summers suggested, might well need skills and traits found in only one person in 10,000: the top 0.01 percent of the population, a tiny group that would presumably include more men because it’s at the extreme right tail of the distribution curve.

    I detect a nicely self-serving assumption, that because professional physicists/mathematicians/chemists/whatever make up less than 0.01% of the population, they must be smarter than 99.99% of the population.

    While I’m sure scientists are smarter than average, I don’t see much evidence to assume that they’re that statistically aberrant, rather, most of the difference is from training.

  9. #9 Gerard Harbison
    June 9, 2010

    Since the beneficiaries of these workshops are initially going to be the heads of STEM departments of the top 50 research institutions, I’m inclined to say ‘give them hell’. The average department head sits through hours and hours of stupefyingly boring pseudo-sociology per year, and a few more hours of the same will simply tune their already finely honed abilities to get some real work done on their laptop or iPad while some tedious and tendentious hack drones on in the background.

    The one place this might have an impact is the requirement that the indoctrination be given to members of scientific review panels. Already, they have real difficulty persuading the top echelon of scientists to serve on such panels. Such panels are undercompensated and overworked; this is just one more incentive to find a reason to decline service. Additionally, such panels are staffed by real scientists, whose response to being presented with stuff like this will be to question methods, results, conclusions, etc.. We don’t indoctrinate so easily.

    But it’s yet another addition to the already massive overhead of irrelevant guff that goes into the scientific funding process these days. Sigh.

  10. #10 Snarkyxanf
    June 9, 2010

    Also, I notice that Mr. Tierney is a professional journalist, a profession that is shrinking, therefore by this argument he must actually be getting smarter!.

    (Sorry about the double post).

  11. #11 ET
    June 9, 2010

    I thought the Scholastic Aptitude Test measured scholastic aptitude, not how smart anyone is.

  12. #12 Gerard Harbison
    June 9, 2010

    While I’m sure scientists are smarter than average, I don’t see much evidence to assume that they’re that statistically aberrant, rather, most of the difference is from training.

    In 1958, the average IQ of an American physicist graduating with a Ph.D. was 132, or slightly above 2 sigma. That’s equivalent to somewhat more than half of American Ph.D. physicists testing in the top percentile.

  13. #13 Snarkyxanf
    June 10, 2010

    @12,

    Ok, so the median IQ score of a doctor of physics is above 2 standard deviations above the mean. You’ll notice that, since Mr. Tierney implied that tenured scientists are in the upper 0.01%, he apparently thinks their mean should be almost four standard deviations above the mean.

    None of this is really to the point of what I was trying to say. More important is that, although raw intelligence (if such a thing exists) is presumptively an important factor in becoming a professional scientist, most of the unique character of a scientist is the result of training, not character.

    You might say that the clay is a fairly common sort of unusual, while the pottery is an exceeding rare work.

  14. #14 Mike Olson
    June 10, 2010

    @13…I’ll grant you that intelligence without education is like silver in the mine…it takes work(education) to bring it out…and I believe that anyone with any sort of personality can be trained to be a scientist…it takes a certain mindset or personality to really get into research. For example and I know this is only one example, I had an uncle who had a PhD in zoology. He was a very intelligent man. But, once employed he was more into the management of a lab than into the research of his particular field. Technically, he was a scientist who worked in a lab. Realistically and practically he was a manager who had a background in science.

  15. #15 Gerard Harbison
    June 11, 2010

    You’ll notice that, since Mr. Tierney implied that tenured scientists are in the upper 0.01%, he apparently thinks their mean should be almost four standard deviations above the mean.

    No, he didn’t say that.

  16. #16 nsib
    June 13, 2010

    Gerard Harbison,

    Mr. Tierney used a quote from Dr. Summers in support of his argument in the linked article. Here it is:

    But a tenured physicist at a leading university, Dr. Summers suggested, might well need skills and traits found in only one person in 10,000: the top 0.01 percent of the population, a tiny group that would presumably include more men because it’s at the extreme right tail of the distribution curve.

    So yeah, I’d say questioning that quoted fact is a totally valid critique of Mr. Tierney’s article.