Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Goodness Me, Is It a Reasoned Response to Lawrence Summers and His Critics!?

In The New Republic, renowned psychologist Steven Pinker takes up the "hullabaloo" regarding Harvard President Lawrence Summers's comments regarding women in science.

Nancy Hopkins, the eminent MIT biologist and advocate for women in science, stormed out of the room to avoid, she said, passing out from shock. An engineering dean called his remarks "an intellectual tsunami," and, with equal tastelessness, a Boston Globe columnist compared him to people who utter racial epithets or wear swastikas.

Pinker dismisses the melodrama and the reductive sound-bite version of Summers' comments, recognizing their nuance, and providing support for at least some of Summers premises -- not because Pinker does or does not think Summers is right, but because Summers wasn't coming entirely out of left field in context, and because Pinker realizes the value of dialogue over taboo, especially in the academy.

Pinker notes:

Summers did not, of course, say that women are "natively inferior," that "they just can't cut it," that they suffer "an inherent cognitive deficit in the sciences," or that men have "a monopoly on basic math ability," as many academics and journalists assumed. Only a madman could believe such things.

Summers is, by expertise, and economist, thus Pinker rightly notes that

Summers's analysis of why there might be fewer women in mathematics and science is commonplace among economists who study gender disparities in employment, though it is rarely mentioned in the press or in academia when it comes to discussions of the gender gap in science and engineering.

Brief humorous interlude:

Anyone who has fled a cluster of men at a party debating the fine points of flat-screen televisions can appreciate that fewer women than men might choose engineering, even in the absence of arbitrary barriers. (As one female social scientist noted in Science Magazine, "Reinventing the curriculum will not make me more interested in learning how my dishwasher works.")

Getting to the point:

Summers's critics have repeatedly mangled his suggestion that innate differences might be one cause of gender disparities (a suggestion that he drew partly from a literature review in my book, The Blank Slate) into the claim that they must be the only cause. And they have converted his suggestion that the statistical distributions of men's and women's abilities are not identical to the claim that all men are talented and all women are not--as if someone heard that women typically live longer than men and concluded that every woman lives longer than every man.

Next, Pinker observes the difference between proposing that men and women are in certain respects distinguishable from proposing that one is inherently better than the other. Pinker also recognizes that this recalls prior "pseudoscientific" invocations of biological difference as justification for preserving fundamental inequalities. He also makes clear that for present purpose he need posit very little about the nature / nurture debate. He does, however, defend Summers on this biological basis (this sort of nuanced consideration of the very smart Summers's very qualified comments has been wholly lacking):

Summers invoked yet another difference that may be more consequential. In many traits, men show greater variance than women, and are disproportionately found at both the low and high ends of the distribution. Boys are more likely to be learning disabled or retarded but also more likely to reach the top percentiles in assessments of mathematical ability, even though boys and girls are similar in the bulk of the bell curve. The pattern is readily explained by evolutionary biology. Since a male can have more offspring than a female--but also has a greater chance of being childless (the victims of other males who impregnate the available females)--natural selection favors a slightly more conservative and reliable baby-building process for females and a slightly more ambitious and error-prone process for males.

Next, Pinker moves on to his principal thesis:

What are we to make of the breakdown of standards of intellectual discourse in this affair--the statistical innumeracy, the confusion of fairness with sameness, the refusal to glance at the scientific literature? It is not a disease of tenured radicals; comparable lapses can be found among the political right (just look at its treatment of evolution). Instead, we may be seeing the operation of a fascinating bit of human psychology.

The psychologist Philip Tetlock has argued that the mentality of taboo--the belief that certain ideas are so dangerous that it is sinful even to think them--is not a quirk of Polynesian culture or religious superstition but is ingrained into our moral sense. In 2000, he reported asking university students their opinions of unpopular but defensible proposals, such as allowing people to buy and sell organs or auctioning adoption licenses to the highest-bidding parents. He found that most of his respondents did not even try to refute the proposals but expressed shock and outrage at having been asked to entertain them. They refused to consider positive arguments for the proposals and sought to cleanse themselves by volunteering for campaigns to oppose them. Sound familiar?

Pinker goes on to suggest reasons why such a sense of taboo has value to the human community -- principally in the ability to demonstrate inviolable kinship with the group such that other members of the community need not suspect that a member is, for want of a better word, for sale, corruptible.

I won't delve any deeper into the argument, principally because I cannot. I had intended to discuss this issue at some length, but after attending a party of academics and raising the topic in a couple of conversations with relative strangers, I found such generalized hostility that I decided it might be a bad idea. Now, however, I have the cover of an eminent psychologist. In a million years, I couldn't have come up with that analysis, but I flatter myself by suggesting that my real objection, all along, was to the lack of subtlety in the analyses of what were lengthy, nuanced, and carefully hedged comments -- a deficiency made all the more odious by the fact that it was one readily indulged by academics, who ought to treasure freedom of inquiry.

That it may have been an impolitic move for the president of Harvard to invite such controversy I readily allow. I just happen to think that for leaders to lead they ought to be prepared to be impolitic, unpopular. The desire to be everything to everyone has corrupted our political dialogue, and it appears as well to be corrupting even our ivory tower intellectual realm. I'm not defending everything in the name of intellectual inquiry, of course -- it sounds as though this guy Churchill out in Colorado deserves no quarter -- but not because of his comments or conclusions, but rather because of his shoddy, and potentially fraudulent work. I still have yet to see anything that leads me to believe that Summers's comments were anything like that; there's a huge difference between the improper and the unpopular.

Hat tip, Jim Lindgren (Volokh Conspiracy).

UPDATE: A good grief!!! -- IKEA accused of gender bias for using only pictures of men assembling furniture. Of course, if they put women assembling furniture in loose blouses bending low over some half-assembled table revealing too much of their cleavage, they'd be objectifying women. Can we find anything more trivial to get upset about? (Hat tip Bernstein at Volokh.)


Blogger Lumo said...

50 articles supporting Summers as well as the information about the no-confidence vote next Tuesday may be found at

Lubos Motl's reference frame

12:15 AM  

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