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.)