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January 18, 2005

Math is hard!

First Barbie, now the President of Harvard: Women Lack 'Natural Ability' In Some Fields, Harvard President Says

The president of Harvard University prompted criticism for suggesting that innate differences between the sexes could help explain why fewer women succeed in science and math careers.

This guy is such an ass. His gross insensitivity caused most of the Af-Am department to leave en masse for Princeton a few years back. When will Harvard have finally had enough?

Posted by jay at January 18, 2005 02:13 PM | TrackBack
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Harvard will never have had enough of chauvinism. Neither will most male dominated academic institutions. There is more to defending your tenure than just publishing.

Which is why in the NYT they published professors defending this guy:

"A lot of people who absolutely disagreed with him were not irritated, and he said again and again, 'I'm here to provoke you,' " said Richard Freeman, an economics professor at Harvard who directs the bureau's labor studies program and invited Dr. Summers to speak. "He's very good at stimulating debate, but he cares deeply about increasing diversity in the science and engineering workforces, especially since we have many more women getting Ph.D.'s in science and engineering than ever before."

Isn't that sweet? We have to have diversity because we can't escape the fact that qualified women are out there. Coupled with the fact that we are losing more and more graduate students to foreign facilities and institutions because of the drop in federal funding for investigative studies (stem-cell is just the tip of that iceberg) they'll have to hire women because all of the foreign and US men are following the research money. So, they will have to "settle" for what's left. But that will be OK as long as everyone understands that the men in the department are the real brains and the women are just filling spots. UGH!

Posted by: terry on January 18, 2005 04:38 PM

BTW, where can I get a Barbie that yells, Vengeance is MINE!"

Posted by: terry on January 18, 2005 04:42 PM

Oh, I just love the anecdotal evidence of his daughter calling her trucks by dolly names.
DUH - he already socialized her as a girl likely. It's hardly scientific evidence!
I didn't name my trucks dolly names when I was a kid, and I hated dolls! And yet I've never been great in math. Go figure!

The most hilarious defense of this guy I've seen yet is from a blogger who disbelieves that there's any subconscious prejudices happening:
"Teachers love bright children regardless of gender. They often prefer girl students because they are better behaved."

Posted by: Chloe on January 19, 2005 06:21 PM

A gotta say, though, I do agree with the sentiments in this article.

I didn't read the Harvard President's original comments, which I'm sure were crass and insensitive, but from a purely academic standpoint an hypothesis is value-neutral. It can be right or wrong, falsifiable or nonfalsibiable, predictive or not predictive, but a hypothesis should never be "good" or "bad". Says Professor of Psychology Steven 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." And on that level I agree. (Although, what's a madrassa?)

No hypothesis should ever be "unthinkable", however offensive it may be to current sensibilities. Remember, it wasn't that long ago it was "unthinkable" that a black person might possibly be just as good as a white person.

Posted by: David on January 21, 2005 04:27 PM

I've read Pinker. Pinker's great. And I am all for academic freedom in its purer forms. But he is really committing a logical fallacy in equating all speech in a university setting with "academic discourse" deserving the protections that true academic speech enjoys. If I stand on a quad and say "My bean soup tastes the bestest in all the world," that doesn't make it a hypothesis. It's an opinion, maybe an aperçu... but hardly a hypothesis.

Summers' problem is that the event was not an academic conference about the brain or gender or anything of the sort, but rather a gathering of administrators about "Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce: Women, Underrepresented Minorities, and their S. & E. Careers." It was "how to" not "why."

And anyway... a hypothesis, properly marshalled, should have something resembling evidence--a sample size larger than one. Calling what Summers had to say "a hypothesis" gives him a bit more credit than the utterance really deserves:
"[Two attendees] cited a story Summers told about giving his daughter two trucks as an effort at gender-neutral parenting. The girl soon began referring to one of the trucks as 'daddy truck' and the other as 'baby truck.'" [See the whole article. Thank you... we've all been debating Carol Gilligan and her methodological soundness for 20 years, but your story about your daughter really advances the discourse!

I think where I really take issue with your and Pinker's defense of Summers is in the assertion of a pure, ahistorical academic discourse. The fact is that Summers wasn't adding anything to the discourse-- he was engaging a habit endemic to male academics and administrators for centuries: the casual, jolly, and evidence free assertion that "maybe" there were physical reasons why women "don't do" science and math. Stripped of all context, judged solely on its merit as a statement that conforms to the syntax of supposition--fine, it's a hypothesis. But by any standard that reflects on the history of science, the relative situations of speaker and interlocutors, and the volume of true, critical science devoted to its subject... it was a stupid thing to say, stated in a manner near the low end of the possible sophistication with which an intelligent person might possibly have said it.

See, I'm proving myself (once again) to be a devout postmodernist: I refuse to let "science" claim ahistorical, context- and value-free privilege. Even if Summers had stood up with a well-researched, novel, peer-reviewed presentation on his chosen "hypothesis," it would have been wildly out of place. Put another way: this was a conference about mountain-climbing, about technique and goal-setting. Up for discussion: the seeming insurmountability of a certain part of the landscape. Summers stood up and said "Maybe some people have shorter legs. My little daughter never much liked climbing. Thank you!"

The real question for me is not, "Why aren't there more women in science?" It's "How much longer will men who get appointed to lofty posts persist in thinking their musings about topics totally foreign to their own training deserve respect and adoration?" I am Harvard, hear me cogitate! This kind of ex cathedra pontification doesn't deserve the protection of "academic freedom"--it deserves swift and noisome notice that the emperor has no clothes. It's really not that different from what we get so tired of W doing--just throwing out an opinion and expecting everyone to nod and smile.

Finally, I really do think some hypotheses belong on the dust-heap of history: "Blacks are stupid." "Jews spread disease." Could you fashion a hypothesis around one of these? Of course. But would it exist in a value-free, consequence-neutral nirvana? Nope, it would be used to the same political and social ends it has been used for in the past. Doesn't science have better things to do than endlessly recapitulate the dumbest ideas in its history? Maybe if there were more women in science, we would have gotten around to asking newer, better questions. That's my hypothesis, and I'm sticking to it.

Posted by: jay on January 21, 2005 05:04 PM

Don't get me wrong: I'm not trying to defend the guy. As I said, I knew nothing of the context of his remarks, and from what you write the guy seems like 100% asshole.

There's an issue of terminology here with regard to the word "hypothesis". In the scientific context (which apparently this is not), an hypothesis is simply an assertion, to be verified or rejected as the situation demands. For example, "All cheese is purple and smells like puppies" is a perfectly valid scientific hypothesis (though easily falsified: one can categorically assert that it is not true). Likewise "All men are smarter than women" is also trivially falsified (I point to George Bush and most any woman you care to name as a counterexample). But in the lay world, "hypothesis" is taken to mean "something I believe to be true", which is rather different from the scientific meaning.

We have the same problem with Creationists and evolution with regard to the word "theory". While in the lay world a "theory" is something like "a hunch of mine", in the scientific world a theory is an hypotheses strongly validated with abundant evidence and no counter-evidence. That doesn't stop people using the lay definition to besmirch valid scientific conclusions, though.

Posted by: David on January 21, 2005 08:00 PM
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