Friday, January 21, 2005

The evolution of the Summers scandal is interesting to behold.

At a recent economics-related conference, Harvard president Lawrence Summers (himself an economist), adressing the lack of women in academia, suggested three hypotheses with explanotary power: discrimination against women, the reluctance of women with children to work 80-hour weeks, and innate biological differences.

Summers was not describing his own work but rather summarizing opinions discussed in the scientific community. Nevertheless, it seems that the mere mention of biological differences as a hypothesis was too much for some:
Nancy Hopkins, a biologist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, walked out on Summers' talk, saying later that if she hadn't left, ''I would've either blacked out or thrown up." Five other participants reached by the Globe, including Denice D. Denton, chancellor designate of the University of California, Santa Cruz, also said they were deeply offended..
Interestingly, on more than one occasion, I've heard feminists talk about war as a male activity caused by male governments; and I've heard more than one attack on science based on criticizing the "male urge" to put things under the microscope and classify, explain, and categorize. My personal impression is that such description are often a part of modern feminist rhetoric; and clearly their logical consequence would be an overabundance of men in both war and science.

However, public reaction to this aside in Summers's speech was quick and overwhelmingly negative. The National Organization for Women has called for Summers' resignation. Editorials have decried "Summers's tortured logic." Summers is now on his third apology, going from professing regret at being misconstrued in his first, to "I made a big mistake, and I was wrong" in his latest. As a Crimson article points out, Summers's tenure is in jeopardy.

However, Summers's summary of the available scientific views was accurate. Research has long shown that patterns of cognition are different in males and females (see this Reason article for a summary of some of the findings) and that these differences can explain differences in male/female performance on different types of tests. Just today a new study to the same effect was released.

None of this is to suggest that we know for certain biological differences explain occupational differences in men and women. But such explanations cannot be simply ignored: they must be given the same treatment as any other scientific hypothesis. This is an issue of academic freedom: attempts by organizations like NOW to forge a consensus by intimidation are precisely why we have the tenure system.

Update: This interview with Steven Pinker is a must-read on the issue. I feel obliged to quote the following:
CRIMSON: Were President Summers’ remarks within the pale of legitimate academic discourse?

PINKER: 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.

CRIMSON: Finally, did you personally find President Summers’ remarks (or what you’ve heard/read of them) to be offensive?

PINKER: 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.
In the rest of the interview, he recites some scientific evidence for why the idea that men and women are specialized in different ways should be taken seriously.

Update 2: William Saletan has a similar take in Slate.

Update 3: I am glad to see that many liberal commentators have not lived up to the way they are often caricatured and have condemned the anti-Summers campaign. The best response, in my opinion, comes from Lynn Sanders at Left2Right:
I'd like to suggest for discussion the idea that there might be something especially dangerous or incendiary about biological explanations, that intellectually, they might be a little like playing with fire. I'm decidedly not saying we should never make them, or that they should always, automatically, be ruled out. But I'd like us to address how very slippery they are. Perhaps it is some remote effect of a political culture based in claims about natural political rights, but clearly in the United States attributions about biological differences have occasionally gone wildly awry. Here I point again to the work of University of Virginia colleagues.
Those that criticize Summers tend to take two lines of argument:

1. Pretend Summers said that innate differences explain why women are less likely to become scientists. Of course, Summers expressed no opinion. He merely listed the set of hypotheses that cannot be ruled out at this stage and are being investigated. This Crooked Timber post falls into this category.

2. Claim that Summers' comments are unacceptable because Summers is an administrator. But Summers was asked to speak at the conference in his capacity as a scientist. And Summers never claimed that this hypothesis can be used to make any kinds of decisions, any more than the other hypotheses he mentioned (discrimination, unwillingness of women with children to work long hours).

P.Z. Myers at Pharangula offers another argument:
People weren’t irate because Summers presented a tentative hypothesis, but because Summers, an administrator with much clout in hiring and firing, presented a badly formed hypothesis with no evidence to support it, that contradicted what we know about the complexity of biology, and he misrepresented it as the result of current, “cutting-edge research.”
I have no idea what the hell a "badly formed" hypothesis is. If "badly formed" is a synonym of "wrong" then we are back at number 1 above. If "badly formed is a synonym of ambiguous, then, duh - this was a cross-disciplinary talk to non-experts. Same goes for giving no evidence: the point here was not to make a case for anything but to highlight possibilities that are being studied. Myers then repeats number 2 from above. As for the closing bit, there exists current "cutting edge" research that suggests this hypothesis may explain something; and Summers never made any claims that it represents a consensus of any sort.


At 6:08 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re: Summers's comments on possible innate cognitive differences between males and females. I guess the issue here is consistency. If all issues are open to cognitive inquiry then why are those question certain positions not equally defended. Recently there was a commemoration of the terrible events of the Holocaust; all well a nd good. But how about those who might hold views contrary to prevailing paradigms on racial, sexual orientation, the WWII Holocaust claims, etc.?

At 2:52 PM, Blogger alex said...

Mostly because its also a question of evidence.

To take an extreme example out of those you mentioned, what if Summers had brought up the hypothesis that the Holocaust never happened? Should we have the same reaction? I think the answer is no, given that all evidence points to the fact that it did.

On the other hand, it is a fact that male and female brains are structured differently in a few ways, and the effect of this on behavior is not well understood. There is some evidence that would suggest innate differences between men and women may have some explanatory power, so I believe Summers is justified in listing this as a possible hypothesis.

Generally, I second what Pinker said in the interview I quoted: everything should be open for discussion in science, as long as its presented with some degree of rigor.


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