February 24, 2005


Sex Ed: THE SCIENCE OF DIFFERENCE (Steven Pinker, 02.07.05, New Republic)

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'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. The fact that women make up only 20 percent of the workforce in science, engineering, and technology development has at least three possible (and not mutually exclusive) explanations. One is the persistence of discrimination, discouragement, and other barriers. In popular discussions of gender imbalances in the workforce, this is the explanation most mentioned. Although no one can deny that women in science still face these injustices, there are reasons to doubt they are the only explanation. A second possibility is that gender disparities can arise in the absence of discrimination as long as men and women differ, on average, in their mixture of talents, temperaments, and interests--whether this difference is the result of biology, socialization, or an interaction of the two. A third explanation is that child-rearing, still disproportionately shouldered by women, does not easily co-exist with professions that demand Herculean commitments of time. These considerations speak against the reflex of attributing every gender disparity to gender discrimination and call for research aimed at evaluating the explanations.

The analysis should have been unexceptionable. 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.") To what degree these and other differences originate in biology must be determined by research, not fatwa. History tells us that how much we want to believe a proposition is not a reliable guide as to whether it is true.

Nor is a better understanding of the causes of gender disparities inconsequential. Overestimating the extent of sex discrimination is not without costs. Unprejudiced people of both sexes who are responsible for hiring and promotion decisions may be falsely charged with sexism. Young women may be pressured into choosing lines of work they don't enjoy. Some proposed cures may do more harm than good; for example, gender quotas for grants could put deserving grantees under a cloud of suspicion, and forcing women onto all university committees would drag them from their labs into endless meetings. An exclusive focus on overt discrimination also diverts attention from policies that penalize women inadvertently because of the fact that, as the legal theorist Susan Estrich has put it, "Waiting for the connection between gender and parenting to be broken is waiting for Godot." A tenure clock that conflicts with women's biological clocks, and family-unfriendly demands like evening seminars and weekend retreats, are obvious examples. The regrettably low proportion of women who have received tenured job offers from Harvard during Summers's presidency may be an unintended consequence of his policy of granting tenure to scholars early in their careers, when women are more likely to be bearing the full burdens of parenthood.

Conservative columnists have had a field day pointing to the Harvard hullabaloo as a sign of runaway political correctness at elite universities. Indeed, the quality of discussion among the nation's leading scholars and pundits is not a pretty sight. 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. Just as depressing is an apparent unfamiliarity with the rationale behind political equality, as when Hopkins sarcastically remarked that, if Summers were right, Harvard should amend its admissions policy, presumably to accept fewer women. This is a classic confusion between the factual claim that men and women are not indistinguishable and the moral claim that we ought to judge people by their individual merits rather than the statistics of their group.

Many of Summers's critics believe that talk of innate gender differences is a relic of Victorian pseudoscience, such as the old theory that cogitation harms women by diverting blood from their ovaries to their brains. In fact, much of the scientific literature has reported numerous statistical differences between men and women. As I noted in The Blank Slate, for instance, men are, on average, better at mental rotation and mathematical word problems; women are better at remembering locations and at mathematical calculation. Women match shapes more quickly, are better at reading faces, are better spellers, retrieve words more fluently, and have a better memory for verbal material. Men take greater risks and place a higher premium on status; women are more solicitous to their children.

Of course, just because men and women are different does not mean that the differences are triggered by genes. People develop their talents and personalities in response to their social milieu, which can change rapidly. So some of today's sex differences in cognition could be as culturally determined as sex differences in hair and clothing. But the belief, still popular among some academics (particularly outside the biological sciences), that children are born unisex and are molded into male and female roles by their parents and society is becoming less credible.

What makes this all especially delicious for us superstitious bigoted chauvinists of the Right is the way secular rational Academia rejects science completely when it conflicts with their politics.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 24, 2005 11:22 AM

Some of this stuff just cries out for a shamelessly un-pc interpretation:

As I noted in The Blank Slate... women are better at remembering locations and at mathematical calculation...
ie. women can remember exactly where you were that night that you shouldn't have been, and how much you spent...

Women match shapes more quickly, are better at reading faces... retrieve words more fluently, and have a better memory for verbal material.
ie. women are good at knitting, are nosier and more presumptious, gossip like nobody's business and can remember every single wrong thing you've ever said and can remind you of it when you least expect it.

Posted by: Brit at February 24, 2005 12:10 PM

"Anyone who has fled a cluster of men at a party debating the fine points of flat-screen televisions"

DLP is the way to go. Once they hit 1080p.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at February 24, 2005 12:25 PM

What makes this all especially delicious for us superstitious bigoted chauvinists of the Right is the way secular rational Academia rejects science completely when it conflicts with their politics.

How true.

Back in the day, I was at a commanders' conference having to do with the M-F disparate M-F ratio in pilot training.

As it happens, there is a test all candidates must take. Also, as it happens, it is very predictive of future success in pilot training. And, as it turns out, there is a distinct, gender-correlated difference in test performance.

I hear the test is in trouble for gender discrimination.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at February 24, 2005 12:53 PM


And assuming that the color wheel is spinning fast enough that you don't see artifacting. Some people don't handle DLP that well.

In any case, for a really large picture it costs just as much or less to go with front projection, and you can get a picture size that dwarfs puny DLP rear projection TVs. A little bit of effort to set up sure, but creates a lot more of a wow.

Posted by: John Thacker at February 24, 2005 2:13 PM