1.20.2005

PC-Patrol, PC-Patrol

Everyone on the college circuit has been hearing about Lawrence Summers' recent controversial remark on innate differences in the sexes. The exact incident and statement are hard to reconstruct, but we can make a reasonable estimate as to what transpired. Summers was giving a speech at a meeting of economists adjourned for the purpose of researching issues relevant to women and minorities in science and engineering and, according to event organizers, "was asked to be provocative." He was invited to speak as a scientist and economist, not as a Harvard official. Therefore, his words are correctly interpreted as being stated within the interest of science by a scientist. In this light, you can do a fairly good job of reconstructing what was said and in what context. According to cnn.com, Summers suggested that "innate differences between the sexes could help explain why fewer women succeed in science and math careers...[and] also questioned how great a role discrimination plays in keeping female scientists and engineers from advancing at elite universities." Additionally (all from CNN) he also cited the "possible factor that he cited was mothers' reluctance or inability to work 80-hour weeks."

The thing is, no one knows what the cause is. It's a hypothesis, stated by a scientist, at a conference of scientists, to discuss science. Although I'm personally inclined to disagree, lots of people speculate that it may be true, and no one has done enough research on it yet, so is it wrong to suggest that this area of scientific research be explored? Physical differences exist between men and women in the body, is it so unreasonable to suggest that they exist in the brain as well?

The reaction from inflamed PC patrollers is predictably absurd. "It is so upsetting that all these brilliant young women (at Harvard) are being led by a man who views them this way," says Nancy Hopkins of MIT.

Summers' own explanation is perfectly explanatory. From CNN:

I apologize for any adverse impact ... on our common efforts to make steady progress in this critical area.
I suppose the offended people would prefer that researchers not make progress in this area. But what makes this different from people trying to stop stem cell research for religious or political reasons? In this case I'm going to have to come down and say Summers did the honorable thing of putting his being a scientist before his being a University president in a politically-hypersensitive culture. I personally am extremely happy to see that someone like Summers as the head of a prominent university, because hopefully his example of putting fact before political correctness will make college culture a less annoying and unendurable thing for future generations of college students.

Update: Noted Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker (via Andrew Sullivan) says "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...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...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." With the additional great line, "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."

Second Update: Here's a really interesting link to a "Ph.D" blogger who humbly has chosen to remain anonymous. "Well, I've got news for you, Larry. My son, whose father took him to see the first X-Prize launch, calls SpaceShipOne the 'Mama Plane' and the 'Baby Plane.' So I think maybe a little more research needs to be done on this topic before your darling daughter--who I'm sure was raised in a completely non-sexist environment (not)--can really serve as definitive proof that girls can't do math and science. Dumbass."

1 comment:

Kilter said...

I keep thinking of Galileo.

*heavy sigh*