Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Women and Science

In my neverending quest to not blog more, I have not bothered to post anything about the Larry Summers controversy. Summers, if you recall, made a speech a couple weeks ago in which he suggested that there were innate, biological reasons why more men than women work with math. This went over badly, as one may expect. And so, a couple days later, he apologized.

So last week, in the Boston Phoenix, Harvey Silverglate responded to Summers’ apology. He was not pleased. Unfortunately, his response is not edifying. Claiming that Summers was "merely stating the obvious" - that "it is no longer acceptable to speak honestly or intelligently about gender, race, sexual identity, or any other issue that has already been "decided" by entrenched orthodoxies " just is not going to work here. Others, who know what they are talking about more than I do, have already addressed the substance of Summers’ remarks - see Majikthise and Pharyngula) in particular. I’ll have to stick to more general remarks.

First - I do not think there is anything particularly intelligent or honest about Summers' remarks. They sound to me to be aimed at irritating people - establishing an image of provocation, of being willing to challenge sacred cows - without the benefit of any thought whatsoever. They are provocative in the sense of provoking people to complain, not provoking people to think. And - perhaps a more important motivation for his remarks, in context - they are self-justifying. At some level, they seem to be aimed at denying his (or Harvard's) responsibility for fixing the gender disparity in the sciences. By suggesting that there are inherent, immutable differences between the sexes which no amount of political and social change can fix, Summers' arguments certainly suggest that at some point, there is no more good to come from social and political change. Where that point is can remain vague, but when someone in his position makes a speech like that, the implication is that the point isn't all that far away.

To defend either of those arguments in the name of academic freedom is cheap and lazy. Some of this is for essentially political reasons: Summers is not an expert on questions of gender, and as president of Harvard, what he says carries great weight - so his amateur opinions are magnified, and - again because of his position - are read as politically significant. (Some discussion of this can be found at the 800 pound gorilla of academic blogs, the Becker-Posner blog.) But beyond that, I think there are some fairly serious reasons why the whole issue is misleading.

Back in the first round of commentary on it, Matthew Yglesias posted something that, I thought, got around the obstructionism that mostly characterizes these debates. "Empirical research into genetics is only a red herring" said he - whether there are genetic differences or not, there are too many societal differences in the treatment of men and women for the genetic differences to be significant. (The Pharyngula link posted above has some similar thoughts - Myers arguing that even the differences that are detectable between men and women are too narrow to be related directly to academic positions.) Even Richard Posner, I think, falls into some of this trap, writing

It seems unlikely that all sex-related differences in occupational choice are due to discrimination; and therefore someone who explores alternative explanations should not be excoriated.

The problem, as Yglesias suggests, is that to speak of "innate" or "genetic" differences is to speak about something well beyond where we are now. That is - Posner (for instance) suggests that while discrimination declines, gender differences remain - this (he adds) suggests that there is something - else - at work. The argument presented by Summers is that the "something else" is biological - when the "something else" could be anything, from biology to social norms, role models, etc. Discrimination can't be defined as exiting only in the jopb market, or even in classrooms, in a simple way. It exists in what boys and girls are encouraged to do (for example) as much as in what they are prevented from doing. In short - I think it is unwise to talk about the genetic roots of social conditions, when you have nowhere nearly exhausted the possible social explanations.

No comments: