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January 19, 2005

A testosterone cloud?

Lynn Sanders: January 19, 2005

I don't know if it is possible to discuss Harvard President Summers' remarks discreetly, but I'll try.

First, what Summers I think did was say that any attempt to explain the lower levels of high achieving women academics in math, science and engineering should include, as one of the hypotheses tested, the possibility that their biology disadvantages women. He suggested too that sex discrimination should be another hypothesis. The storm of controversy has thus developed around the question of whether biological differences should ever be introduced in social scientific explanations for social inequality: whether this hypothesis should even be considered.

Some would say that intellectual freedom demands that no explanation ever be ruled out, no matter how offensive or preposterous it might seem. Summers was just being a scientist, we could say, brainstorming about hypotheses to test. Commenting on the "intellectual tsunami" that he has provoked, we might defend him by saying, science demands that any hypothesis be available for consideration.

I see in this cloud of controversy a connection to the long discussion at what's up at the universities.

I know there may be a lot of disagreement about this, but from where I sit, in a political science department, it seems that there's very little reluctance to consider claims about the social consequences of biological difference. That is, it is not as if this sort of hypothesis, however provocative or offensive it is, is suppressed. Maybe that's because here at the University of Virginia, there are a lot of political conservatives in the social sciences. So this fall, here in Charlottesville, social scientific discourse included the entertainment of the hypothesis that women are naturally better equipped for childcare because they are less disturbed than men are by the smell of a baby's diapers. (Click here for a less comic and more balanced rendition of the work generating this discussion.)

Further, in an odd replaying of Betty Friedan's attempt to address "the problem that has no name," a number of my colleagues are currently explaining the malaise they see among young women as a product of feminism's suppression of natural feminine inclinations. That is, nature drives women to nuture, but feminism, distorting nature, has pushed young women to seek achievement and made them unhappy. (For whatever it's worth, if you don't like the way that contemporary culture turns every problem into one that can be treated by therapy, I think you have to go after this attempt to minister to young women too.) Anyway, my point here is not to engage this claim on the merits, but simply to point out that from this particular corner of the academy, the idea that biologically based sex differences explain social outcomes seems to be getting plenty of play.

Indeed, it seems to me - I may be wrong on this, I emphasize that this is only my impression - that we've arrived at a(nother) cultural moment when biological factors seem quite prevalent as explanations for various social phenomena, from low numbers of women mathematicians to terrorism to conflict resolution to homosexuality. Of course all of these problems and their associated explanations differ widely. But again, the point is, the social scientific academy seems quite willing in general to consider hypotheses about biological difference.

Biological explanations that come from the right, especially to explain social inequality, are infamous, really notorious, perhaps unfairly so. Introducing natural difference to explain inequality is not precisely the same thing as justifying inequality, but it seems perilously close to many observers, and thus generates the kind of controversy surrounding Summers now.

But though the right seems to have a premium on notorious biological explanations - the Bell Curve comes to mind - clearly this sort of argument is not the exclusive preserve of the right. One area of political rhetoric on the left where claims about nature have powerful hold is, of course, claims by some gay people about the origins of their sexual preferences. On a different topic, I see a resonance between some contemporary claims made by social scientists about the worrisome effects of testosterone, and some radical feminism from a few decades ago. Both seem to agree that men, left to their own devices (that is, not married or otherwise disciplined) will follow their biological drive to rampage. (Here's a perverse observation about common ground: I suspect we could find a version of the suggestion that too much testosterone is a recipe for social and political disaster, that would offend virtually everyone.)

On that note, I think it would be a good exercise for all of us, left and right, to think carefully about both those instances when explanations based in biological difference seem appealing and intuitively correct to us and, even more important, when they offend us. For, again, there should be something here to offend just about everyone. As much as our natural propensities sometimes excuse us, no one wants to be the captive of her nature, and certainly not of anyone else's impression of what that nature is or what it implies or demands.

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.

In order to ward off the simplistic attribution to me that I think everything is social construction, and by implication we can engineer social solutions to any biological givens we don't like, let me say simply: I don't. I think there is a complicated and fascinating relationship between our biology, our hormones especially, and our physical and mental capacities.

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» The Summers soldier from blogs for industry
...and the sunshine defender of intrinsic differences. I haven't blogged on the Larry Summers/Nancy Hopkins et al. kerfuffle, but many others have blogged or commented in the MSM. Some links I found interesting: Harvard Profs opine in the Crimso... [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 21, 2005 4:42:33 AM

» Nancy Hopkins and the right stuff from blogs for industry
One of the favorite new defenses of Larry Summers goes like http://slate.com/id/2112570/this: Let's be clear about what this isn't. It isn't a claim about overall intelligence. Nor is it a justification for tolerating discrimination between two people... [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 23, 2005 2:04:55 AM

Comments

Posted by: Shag from Brookline

"Vive la difference". Radcliffe should secede. Are Summers' views here consistent with his views on affirmative action?

Posted by: Shag from Brookline | Jan 19, 2005 2:23:01 PM


Posted by: Steve S

I suppose that are all sort of behaviors, states, circumstances have associated physical causes (or causal factors). This seems almost tautological to me as a materialist. What I find interesting is two things.
1. Which physical traits do we assume MUST have some sociological or behavioral consequences (Sex, Race, etc..). Perhaps other ones like hair color, blood pressure, freckle quotient have even greater. Something tells me, it is not purely scientific reason that tells us it is one and the not the other, but really there are polical ends in sight. The notorious Bell Curve is a good (or maybe poor) example of starting with conclusions and trying to work back to evidence.
2. The uses of these explanations. In medicine, a causal connection is used as a warning, or indicator that people should moderate their diets, or behaviors in someway (if they are genetically disposed to lung cancer for example). But in socio-sciences, the correlations are usually meant to justify something as 'natural' therefore 'proper'. I assume that is not always the intent of the studies, but always seems to be the fallout of them. Consider the study at UNM back in the nineties that claimed 'rape' was a 'normal and successful reproduction strategy.' It cloaked itself in the guise of pure science, but was almost immediately leapt on by defense attorneys defending accused rapists.

I think many of the underlying assumptions about gender and race, are highly dubious and often quite accidental. That women bear the greatest responsibility of child rearing seems to me something we can observe, but that they should do it, has hardly been proven. And studying a people for which this has long been a truth may mean nothing. Perhaps raising kids causes our bodies to change and produce different hormones or a differently structured neural net. Finding those differences doesn't prove the dirrection of the causal arrow. How to do that without lifelong isolation seems impossible to me. But I disgress.

My main point is that the subjects of our studies, and the assumptions we begin with seem to reflect our culture rather than rise from the study of it.

Posted by: Steve S | Jan 19, 2005 2:31:06 PM


Posted by: S. Weasel

I was absolutely shocked a few years ago when it was announced that women were taking more iron than they needed, sometimes a dangerous amount more. Had I been confronted with the information that women have lower average serum iron levels than men, my reaction would have been, "Huh. I wonder why women need less iron?" I assumed there was some additional indication that women had less iron than they needed. But no, apparently, researchers looked at the disparity, assumed it was yet another injustice that needed righting, and began stuffing women with iron supplements.

All science is in some measure affected by the fashions and conceits of its day, but that's not a good thing. When we act on bad data -- even with the best of intentions -- we often do things that are wicked and destructive.

The notion that there are is information that may be true but is nonetheless too dangerous or liable to corrupt to be explored...that's got Dark Ages written all over it, in my view. Our growing knowledge of genetics will confront us with all manner of uncomfortable data about ourselves. When it happens, I don't think we can avoid talking about it.

Posted by: S. Weasel | Jan 19, 2005 2:57:00 PM


Posted by: oliver

Can you cite any sources S Weasel? What you said doesn't resonate with this NIH fact sheet.
http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/iron.asp
Posted Date:
7/28/2004
Updated:
8/17/2004 5:54:00 PM

"Iron deficiency anemia can be associated with low dietary intake of iron, inadequate absorption of iron, or excessive blood loss [1,16,35]. Women of childbearing age, pregnant women, preterm and low birth weight infants, older infants and toddlers, and teenage girls are at greatest risk of developing iron deficiency anemia because they have the greatest need for iron [33]. Women with heavy menstrual losses can lose a significant amount of iron and are at considerable risk for iron deficiency [1,3]. Adult men and post-menopausal women lose very little iron, and have a low risk of iron deficiency."

Posted by: oliver | Jan 19, 2005 3:08:55 PM


Posted by: buck turgidson

Whether you agree with the alleged Summers's position that biological differences should be considered as a part of the hypothesis equation or not, it is ridiculous to say that "Summers was just being scientific." First, he's not a scientist--of course, this does not disqualify him from expressing an opinion based on science. However, other factors come into play that make this point important. Second, Summers has a habit of expressing uncompromising opinions and refusing to negotiate their meanings--don't try to translate what he said into something you think he should have sent, because he most certainly did not mean that. He meant EXACTLY what he said and he meant to irritate people. To expand on this a bit, Summers has a rather abrasive, even despotic personality. While he was in a supportive position in various administrations, he could be counted on to help to reason through arguments or to articulate a position for discussion. However, when he's been in a position of power, he's always reverted to the same role--basically, a modern version of an Egyptian pharaoh. He thinks his word is imbued with divinity and accepts no contradictions or compromises. He may be put in a position where a compromise is unavoidable, but he will not do that just because he's roundly criticized for expressing something that coming from someone else would have been considered an example of abject stupidity. His statements are neither scientific, nor philosophical. I can't even describe them as ideological or pragmatic. They are based on a perverted intuition. There is another former university president who has always behaved in a similar manner, but whose personality is even less charming. He still resides across the river and is fondly remembered in Texas as a role model not to aspire to.

Posted by: buck turgidson | Jan 19, 2005 3:09:10 PM


Posted by: Terrier

Isn't it the male brain that refuses to see shades of distinction in differences? :-) Buddhism teaches the ten worlds: hell-hunger-animality-anger-rapture-heaven-learning-realization-compassion-buddhahood. A child's view of those distinctions is that we inhabit one world at a time. The mature view is that we simultaneously inhabit them all. Thus it is with gender differences. A policy based on statistics will ultimately create as many problems as it solves. Rather than seeing gender contrasts as confirmation of separation we should see them collectively as a definition of humanity. Any particular human is only a temporary manifestation of the probable. Study, but be wary of labelling conclusions. I am not done.


Posted by: Terrier | Jan 19, 2005 3:10:54 PM


Posted by: Untenured Republican

I don't really have much of anything to add to Lynn's thoughtful comments except the following: while we are thoroughly familiar with deplorable arguments for inaction and complacency based on Darwinian arguments, I think some attention should be payed to a different angle: when biological arguments are made, this can also send one on the path toward looking for neuroscience *mechanisms* that implement the Darwinian process, and then in the end, to pharmacological responses to same. I recall a debate that seems to have just dropped dead of its own accord about the social explanations for depression; now half the people I know are on antidepressants. So one possible outcome of adopting a biological explanation is not social complacency, but (possibly ill-considered) social engineering through pharmacology. I have a feeling that the future will bring much more of this sort of thing: if it turns out that men or women are by nature better suited for certain activities (or if we convince ourselves that they are) the result may be to come up with a pill to "fix" it. In some ways I find that the more troubling outcome.

Posted by: Untenured Republican | Jan 19, 2005 3:12:07 PM


Posted by: oliver

Normal serum iron values are as follows:

* Adult males: 75-175 micrograms/dL
* Adult females: 65-165 micrograms/dL
* Children: 50-120 micrograms/dL
* Newborns: 100-250 micrograms/dL.
http://www.chclibrary.org/micromed/00053450.html

Posted by: oliver | Jan 19, 2005 3:17:32 PM


Posted by: oliver

Here's a mid-2003 clinical trial in a reputable journal suggesting even non-anemic women with suffering fatigue benefit from iron supplementation.
http://bmj.bmjjournals.com/cgi/content/full/326/7399/1124?maxtoshow=&HITS=10&hits=10&RESULTFORMAT=&fulltext=iron%25252Bdeficiency&searchid=1054922899961_11753&stored_search=&FIRSTINDEX=0&volume=326&issue=7399

Posted by: oliver | Jan 19, 2005 3:29:35 PM


Posted by: oliver

"I'd like to suggest for discussion the idea that there might be something especially dangerous or incendiary about biological explanations"

No duh! Couldn't you pitch us some tougher ones?

Posted by: oliver | Jan 19, 2005 3:35:20 PM


Posted by: Perseus

I don't think that explanations rooted in biology (nature) are any more dangerous than those rooted in social construction (nurture). Allow to me cite the most extreme political examples of each: Hitler's fascism and Stalin's communism. Nazis had their "master race" while Stalinists believed that communism could be brought about through social engineering. Both were wrong because they took one sort of explanation to its extreme. I would agree, however, that biological explanations are more "incendiary" in a democratic regime because they tend to offend the democrat's devotion to equality ("men and women are in every way equal!") and freedom ("how dare you suggest that biology limits my freedom to become whatever I want!").

Posted by: Perseus | Jan 19, 2005 4:05:40 PM


Posted by: SamChevre

Biological explanations can do two things: they can justify different policies, or they can explain outcomes. I would argue that the first is almost always illegitimate, but the second is very useful.

Sam’s rule of government: governments should consider individuals as individuals, not as members of a group. Making group-based policies strengthens factionalism, increases tensions between the groups and hardens definitions of the group, and is thus dangerous and corrosive to liberty.

However, government treating people as “equal before the law” does not mean that all groups will end up proportionately represented in every field of endeavor. Studying how groups differ in ability, inclination, etc is useful for understanding why that happens.

One area of law and practice where this realization is very helpful is in anti-discrimination law. On principle, I oppose anti-discrimination law that applies to non-government actors—but that’s another issue. One big problem with anti-discrimination law as currently implemented is that numerical disparities are considered evidence of discrimination. (If there is significant under-representation of a protected group, the burden of proof is on the employer to prove that it does not discriminate.) Realizing that there can be real biological reasons that groups will not, in every endeavor, be represented proportionately, helps show why this presumption is inaccurate and can be dangerous.

Posted by: SamChevre | Jan 19, 2005 4:06:28 PM


Posted by: SamChevre

Just to clarify--I believe biological differences almost never justify governments treating people differently. Most of the abuses mentioned above (eugenics, segregation) are examples of governments treating people differently on the basis of biology.

Posted by: SamChevre | Jan 19, 2005 4:25:57 PM


Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

If one is going to make reference to Buck v. Bell in the context of a linking reference to the University of Virginia, perhaps it would be appropriate to note that the famous “Three generations of imbeciles are enough” quote came from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., a Harvard man. (Those Harvard chaps just can’t stay out of trouble, can they? I’m reminded of a famous Democrat and patron of Harvard who had his own daughter lobotomized so she wouldn’t be a political embarrassment to his son. What was his name again?)

Further, as I noted previously, Summer didn’t so much suggest that discrimination was the cause for fewer female scientists, per se, as suggest that it was unlikely. At least according to the Boston Globe report “[Summer] said that if discrimination was the main factor limiting the advancement of women in science and engineering, then a school that does not discriminate would gain an advantage by hiring away the top women who were discriminated against elsewhere.” He's right.

In any case, the notion that men are more sensitive than women to the smell of baby diapers is an absurd hypothesis. The contents of those diapers? Well, that’s another story.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Jan 19, 2005 5:10:40 PM


Posted by: Aaron S.

what was his name?

Posted by: Aaron S. | Jan 19, 2005 6:20:16 PM


Posted by: S. Weasel

Oliver, I have no idea now what my source was. Clumsy of me. I withdraw my example.

Posted by: S. Weasel | Jan 19, 2005 6:20:33 PM


Posted by: LetUsGrabSomeCluesPeople

1. Women might avoid those disciplines because they are smart enough to not fall for the socialist propaganda enticement of such basket-weaving pursuits.

2. Any society that bets its future on maximizing its number of scientists, engineers, etc. is guaranteeing economic and cultural ruin.

Posted by: LetUsGrabSomeCluesPeople | Jan 19, 2005 6:22:38 PM


Posted by: S. Weasel

Saaayyyy, LetUsGrabSomeCluesPeople...I know you! You're the poster formerly known as TravelOutsideAmericaOnceInAWhile. What, you get married or something?

Posted by: S. Weasel | Jan 19, 2005 6:25:53 PM


Posted by: Bret

Unfortunately, I think it's a bad idea even to investigate the possibility of biologically based performance of groups. Sometimes a truth isn't worth knowing, even if it is the truth.

Let's say it was shown that group Y performed less well than average at task X. For example, short people aren't as likely to be competitive basketball stars. But instead of the physical realm, consider the task to require mental capabilities.

Now consider an employer's point of view when hiring. An employer hires an individual, not a group. Thus, one perspective is that the employer need only evaluate the individual and have no reason to take into account whether or not that individual is a member of a group that, on average, performs less well at the task for which the individual is being hired.

Unfortunately, things aren't so simple. In a competitive and uncertain world (like the one we happen to live in), the employer is looking for any advantage in hiring that he can get in predicting the performance of a potential employee. When the employer evaluates the potential employee, the evaluation provides limited information and extremely limited insight into the employees future performance. It's very difficult to compare various candidates' schooling, grades, previous employment history, references, etc. As a result, there would be a motivation, hopefully ignored by most but I doubt all, for employers to say "Person Z seems okay but they are a member of group Y who are not on average as good at task X so I'd just as soon hire person W who seems more or less as good and is not a member of group Y." Another way to put it is that hiring people is basically a crapshoot, and if a biological basis for performance were found, that could, depending on how significant the correlation was, be the single best predictor of performance (as in height and basketball).

This problem would be especially likely to appear early in the career of a group Y person. After someone has a significant track record, then the employer would be less likely to take it into account.

Thus I think it would lead to discrimination and therefore we shouldn't even investigate the concept.

Posted by: Bret | Jan 19, 2005 7:27:42 PM


Posted by: S. Weasel

Thus I think it would lead to discrimination and therefore we shouldn't even investigate the concept.

The problem with this approach, Bret (no matter how noble your intent), is that if something is true, people will figure out for themselves that it's true. And if it's true, and the academy refuses to investigate or acknowledge it (or, worse, denies it), people will come to suspect and mistrust the academy.

Posted by: S. Weasel | Jan 19, 2005 8:05:06 PM


Posted by: Matt

LetUsGrabSomeCluesPeople: You've got me. I can't tell if you're joking or not. Engineers: guaranteed engines of economic and social ruin. From where I sit, engineers do all the real work in our economy- most everyone else just allocates resources.

Posted by: Matt | Jan 19, 2005 8:52:37 PM


Posted by: jen

As a woman, I'm not offended by the hypothesis that men are biologically equipped to excel at math and science more than I am, anymore than I'm offended by the fact that they can perform better than me in athletics. Let the theory be confirmed or disconfirmed like any other--the results will be fascinating. To be offended by the very notion strikes me as the kind of emotional, hysterical reaction that has given women a bad name in the first place.

But, for what its worth, when I was thinking of going to grad school in philosophy, I was actively discouraged on the grounds that "women have trouble thinking abstractly". I was also accused of plagiarism my Freshman year on the grounds that "it just seems unlikely that you would write on this level", even though no evidence of plagiarism was present. Happily, the charges were prompted dropped, sheepish apologies and all.


Posted by: jen | Jan 19, 2005 9:34:59 PM


Posted by: David

It's a pop-sociological reference, but in his new book 'Blink' Malcolm Gladwell tells an interesting story along these lines. He writes that traditionally orchestras have been male dominated, sometimes implicitly but often explicitly b/c of the perception that women just weren't as good musicians. Some even claimed they could tell the difference b/w male and female musicians just by listening to them, as well as all kinds of other theories for male dominance. Then in the 1980s orchestras started using screens during auditions to stave off perceptions of cronyism. The unintended result was, once the selection committee could no longer see the gender of the musician, they started hiring women in large numbers. They, of course, didn't think they were prejudiced, but they were. And they of course thought the audition process was as open and fair as a process could be, but of course it wasn't.

Posted by: David | Jan 19, 2005 10:45:43 PM


Posted by: Perseus

I would add that we seem to be forgetting the flip side of the old stereotype, namely, the language abilities of women are generally superior to those of men. And this too, we now discover, has a biological basis. We men only use the left sides of our brains to process language while women use both sides of their brains. Even with this knowledge, my male ego remains safely intact.

Posted by: Perseus | Jan 19, 2005 10:52:59 PM


Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Me flunk English? That's unpossible!

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Jan 19, 2005 10:55:35 PM


Posted by: Paul Shields

I seem to remember Walker Percy suggesting in The Second Coming that there is a biological difference between conservatives and liberals--as evidenced by their typical medical complaints being, respectively, constipation and morning tremors. :-)

Posted by: Paul Shields | Jan 20, 2005 12:51:14 AM


Posted by: Jay Cline

It is not so much the differences, but the coercive use of those differences, that creates inequalities. All else equal, men are physically stronger and use a more physical coercion. To counter that preponderous advantage, women resort to ‘wiles’ and seduction. Come on, it is and has and always will be all about the testosterone. And so it becomes an us/them thing, two people talking from different starting points and traveling in an N+1 direction in an Nth dimensional universe (sort of like the Left/Right thing). The inequality is built in; but is it an inequity of qualitative difference or an inequity of quantitative difference?

Before I became a staunch Rambo conservative, I was a naive Hawkeye Pierce liberal. So I’ve seen the arguments from both ends and they are most definitely not two ends of the same stick. Same with the differences between men and women. Men may not be from Mars and Women from Venus, but the conflict inherent in physically different points of origins is just as complicated.

For some time now I have had the pleasure of living in my wife’s Old World culture. What I have learned is I am very much from the culture of the New World. It is a difference of patronage versus peerage; of family responsibility and social pressure over personal liberty and enlightened self-interest; of persuasion over rule of law; who you know, not what. Instead of living a thousand miles from siblings and seeing them once a year, cousins are siblings that you grow up with and spend every day of your life with. And our little girl has the pleasure to figure it out for all of us. When she comes up with answers, I'll let you all know.

The funny thing about the ends of the stick is there really is no right side or wrong side. It’s not about relativism, but to accept the validity of differing points of view does not necessarily require relativism. It’s just that these arguments are not bi-polar; the issues are much to complex for that.

Now for the big letdown - no answers here. Except, there are no answers. That is not fatalism, just reality. Trying to impose equality over an inequitable playing field is worse than nothing. Imposing the freedom from the slavery of the stove takes away a woman’s right to slave over the stove. Freeing men from (fill in the blank) takes away our right to (fill in the blank) - whatever makes a man a man. What we need are women who let men be men and men who let women be women.

Anyone who tries to use the differences to their advantage over the other, or use the guilt of those differences to browbeat their political agenda over another's head, needs careful watching.

Gads! Now there is a mental equivalent of the triple jump. But I warned ya, I don’t have the answers.

Posted by: Jay Cline | Jan 20, 2005 1:22:53 AM


Posted by: Paul Shields

Correction: in Love in the Ruins

Posted by: Paul Shields | Jan 20, 2005 3:50:14 AM


Posted by: oliver

I'm inclined to think that stigmatizing any single line of inquiry regarding a social phenomenon inhibits thinking along other lines as well. At least to non-scholars, the notion that "well, at least I know I don't have to think about _this_ possibility" implicitly suggests that the answer or explanation is in some sense nailed down. For instance, I suspect the feminist taboo regarding "innate difference" may have been why it took so long for the idea of "inclinations" to become widely entertained. We would-be PC thought police may think we're shutting down only prenatal explanations when we stigmatize thinking around "innate," but "inclinations" includes things both innate and dependent on psychology and upbringing.

Posted by: oliver | Jan 20, 2005 9:05:48 AM


Posted by: David Velleman

I went looking for the text of Summers's remarks and found only this grovelling apology, making clear that he has bowed to a barrage of criticism. This is very unfortunate.

My first thought, on hearing the reports, was that a good reason for testing an hypothesis can be the belief that it is false. Doctors have several times tested me for dread diseases while saying "I don't think you have this disease." The reason for running the test is to exclude a diagnosis decisively, so that the doctor can focus on other explanations for my symptoms. So, for example, I've been sent to the Radiology Department with a requisition that said "Rule out neoplasm" -- meaning that the doctor's intention in ordering x-rays was to exclude a diagnosis of cancer.

I would have thought that women would welcome research into sex differences in scientific and mathematical ability for precisely the same reason. Until the explanation is refuted, it will remain in people's minds as a live possibility. And the sort of political pressure that has extracted an apology from Sommers can only lead people to suspect that denials of the hypothesis are due to politics, not science. There is an important difference between a world in which everyone says "There are no sex differences in intellectual ability" believing it to be true and a world in everyone says it believing that it's what they're supposed to say, on pain of being called sexists. The pressure applied to Summers ensures that we will not soon be able to live in the former sort of world.


Posted by: David Velleman | Jan 20, 2005 9:23:07 AM


Posted by: S. Weasel

There is an important difference between a world in which everyone says "There are no sex differences in intellectual ability" believing it to be true and a world in everyone says it believing that it's what they're supposed to say, on pain of being called sexists.

While I couldn't agree with this statement more, honestly compels me to post this letter, sent to National Review's blog, The Corner:

His comments had nothing to do with science, and everything to do with making excuses for Harvard's unusually low proportion of women among its tenured science faculty. Having been on the job circuit last year, and now settled at a very good research institution (a tier below Harvard, to be sure), I've seen how things are at other institutions and I'm a lot more open to the possibility that *some* of the difficulties facing women in science stem from sexism. How is it that Stanford, which is at least as good as Harvard when it comes to science (possibly better, when you normalize for inflated reputations), manages to have so many more prominent women in its faculty? You would expect that their reputation would have suffered as they took on more women, if you take Summers's suggestion seriously, but if anything the opposite is true. In any event, it was inappropriate for Summers, who ultimately gives the stamp of approval to all tenure decisions, to make comments like that in a public setting, and you can pretty much be sure that Harvard isn't going to make up its gender gap relative to other schools any time soon.

Always more convincing when a viewpoint comes from an unlikely source, I suppose.

Posted by: S. Weasel | Jan 20, 2005 9:35:12 AM


Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

Other than by showing actual parity (that is, by showing roughly equal numbers of women physicists and mathematicians throughout the hierarchy of the scientific community), how could the hypothesis that differences in mathematical and scientific ability are biologically sex based be refuted?

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Jan 20, 2005 10:10:48 AM


Posted by: David Velleman

Yes, S. Weasel, I agree that Summers's position makes him the wrong person to speculate aloud on this issue. (And thanks for reprinting the NRO letter, which makes the point very well.) The whole episode is unfortunate, from beginning to end. A person responsible for hiring and promoting faculty shouldn't be publicly floating hypotheses that raise doubts about his own objectivity, even if those doubts might, strictly speaking, be unwarranted, for reasons of the sort that I suggested. But the public pressure for a retraction, though of course unavoidable once Summers had committed his blunder, is also potentially counter-productive. Lynn's question was whether research into biologically based differences is desirable. Leaving the Summers fiasco aside, I think that such research can be desirable, and I am quite convinced that trying to discourage such research can be very harmful.

Posted by: David Velleman | Jan 20, 2005 10:23:09 AM


Posted by: Heidi

Other than by showing actual parity (that is, by showing roughly equal numbers of women physicists and mathematicians throughout the hierarchy of the scientific community), how could the hypothesis that differences in mathematical and scientific ability are biologically sex based be refuted?

Use a different sample population other than the math and physics community you refer to. For instance, you could grab a couple hundred kids of each gender at birth and raise them in an environment where the stereotypes are explicitly reversed. We don't do this because it's unethical, not because it's uninteresting.

But if you go beyond math, physics, and engineering, and look at the current generation, some sciences that were predominantly male are being colonized by women. Think biology. My entering grad school chemistry class at Berkeley was 50/50 split. This wasn't always the case, so there is at least some evidence that socialization has some effect. We just don't know what the magnitude of that effect is.

Posted by: Heidi | Jan 20, 2005 10:37:55 AM


Posted by: D.A. Ridgely

There may well be things we are better off not knowing: things about ourselves as individuals (e.g., if it were possible, the exact time of one’s death), and things about each other (e.g., others’ thoughts). Moreover, there may be things that are not worth knowing about certain groups because the grouping itself is suspect. Racial and ethnic classifications and some sorts of research based on those classifications may fall into that category, though there may also be exceptions. It is an historical accident of geography that various groups of human beings adapted in various ways (e.g., skin color) that are irrelevant to being a human being. It also happens, however, that for reasons the population geneticists can explain far better than I, some of those groups are more likely to have certain sorts of medical problems; and I can think of no ethical or social reason why medical science should ignore such facts, especially for diagnostic purposes. I’ve tried to phrase these sorts of examples in as uncontroversial a manner as I can, but I don’t want to argue them, per se. I merely suggest there are cases when we might rationally decide certain sorts of knowledge are either too disastrously harmful to possess or at least so likely to be incendiary, as Ms Sanders phrased it, that the justification for seeking such knowledge would have to meet a much higher standard than normal.

To that extent, at least, certainly one of the things we want to affirm without qualification is that insofar as we are all human beings, no scientific discovery could in principle be relevant to the ways we want to affirm our equality as such; e.g., equality under the law, equal rights to dignity and respect and autonomy as human beings, etc. As that is true of ethnic or racial differences, it is also true of gender differences.

On the other hand, however much how we live together as men and women may well be a matter of social construct, and without even getting to whether those social constructs are oppressive or unfair or reciprocally beneficial ‘God’s will’ or any other value judgment one might wish to attach to them, at least some sexual differences are purely a matter of biology. Again, what importance we attach to those differences or what inferences we draw as a result are another matter.

My sense is that we have no need for scientific research into differences in intelligence, however defined, between men and women because no possible findings will have any relevance to how intelligent or scientifically talented any particular man or woman may be. I certainly wouldn’t forbid such research, but neither would I willingly pay for it. If the world has not yet beheld a female Einstein or Newton or if women as a group tend not to do as well in math or physics as men for purely biological reasons, it is irrelevant as to whether that female Einstein might have been born only yesterday. What is important is relevant equality of opportunity for each individual, not equality of results among groups.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Jan 20, 2005 10:40:28 AM


Posted by: Jim Hu

DA: that doesn't seem like a good test to me. Could be explained by politics if it ever happened, and those who support a differences hypothesis would say that was the reason.

Pinker critics can discount appropriately, but here's what he said to the Crimson/

CRIMSON: From what psychologists know, is there ample evidence to support the hypothesis that a difference in �innate ability� accounts for the under-representation of women on science faculties?

PINKER: 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 (both implying that there would be a slightly higher proportion of men at the high end of the scale). It does not mean that all men are better at quantitative abilities than all women! That�s why it would be immoral and illogical to discriminate against individual women even if it were shown that some of the statistidcal differences were innate.

I believe this argument has been made here at Left2Right before, perhaps by DA Ridgely? I might have made it myself somewhere.
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. It does not mean that it is the only factor. Still, if it is one factor, we cannot reflexively assume that different statistical representation of men and women in science and engineering is itself proof of discrimination. Incidentally, another sign that we are dealing with a taboo is that when it comes to this issue, ordinarily intelligent scientists suddenly lose their ability to think quantitatively and warp statistical hypotheses into crude dichotomies.

As far as the evidence is concerned, I'�m not sure what �ample� means, but there is certainly enough evidence for the hypothesis to be taken seriously.

For example, quantitative and spatial skills vary within a gender according to levels of sex hormones. And in samples of gifted students who are given every conceivable encouragement to excel in science and math, far more men than women expressed an interest in pursuing science and math.[I cleaned up some typos/word artefacts in the original]

Note that his last para brings in a different variable: interest ≠ ability.

Posted by: Jim Hu | Jan 20, 2005 10:44:59 AM


Posted by: David Velleman

D.A. Ridgley: Of course there are more important topics for research. And I am more concerned with not discouraging such research, if anyone wants to do it, than I am with encouraging it. Discouraging it leads to the suspicion of a cover-up.

Posted by: David Velleman | Jan 20, 2005 10:46:43 AM


Posted by: frankly0

There is an important difference between a world in which everyone says "There are no sex differences in intellectual ability" believing it to be true and a world in everyone says it believing that it's what they're supposed to say, on pain of being called sexists.

This point strikes me as naive, largely because it fails to deal with the obvious alternatives here about how all this might play out.

In particular, what about the difference between a world in which everyone says "There are no sex differences in intellectual ability" believing that it's what they're supposed to say, on pain of being called sexists, and a world in which NO ONE says it, because it has been established, by conclusive scientific argument, to be FALSE -- a clear possibility given our current scientific uncertainty on this very point?

Isn't it possible that scientific ignorance on some of these points is the better world, given how scientific proof of innate differences would inevitably foster unfair prejudice against even those in the "less able" group who DO have the potential to achieve significant things? Why are we obliged to settle the question one way or another, when a negative outcome would be so much worse than ignorance? If we are rightly most concerned about the fate of those who are the worst advantaged in our society, why should we engage in a scientific enterprise that has a clear prospect of making their fate far more difficult than it is already?

For a variety of reasons, I happen to think that women are really in a pretty different boat from minorities with respect to the effects of prejudice, and how prejudices against them should be addressed. I don't think that the down side of finding out that women don't have the same innate abilities as men is going to be nearly as pernicious for them as the like finding would be for minorities. But, on the other hand, I also am quite convinced that, once a scientific mechanism has been given the political and moral green light to establish innate differences in ability (if any) between men and women, it would be impossible to stop it from establishing the same sorts of things regarding different races. And I have exactly zero doubt that a negative outcome in THOSE cases would be used to truly evil purposes.

Posted by: frankly0 | Jan 20, 2005 10:49:14 AM


Posted by: Jim Hu

I see DA reiterated the point about individuals and groups even as I was composing the post above! And I imagine that Heidi could comment on my impression that however much sexism is not the only factor, there are still sexists in science. Some of it is the outright "Women shouldn't be here" kind, but I suspect that more is what the POTUS might call "the soft sexism of low expectations".

Then there's the environmental factor of male science geeks who can't get dates not taking women seriously because they're too busy hitting on them (yes, this is a stereotype).

Posted by: Jim Hu | Jan 20, 2005 10:54:44 AM


Posted by: Jim Hu

One reason it's a stereotype is that some male scientists do this even if they can get dates.

Posted by: Jim Hu | Jan 20, 2005 10:59:31 AM


Posted by: frankly0

To follow up on my prior post, one way to think about the issue is: suppose the answer to the questions of whether there are innate differences in ability between sexes or between races are enclosed in an envelope given us by God or nearly omniscient aliens, and that the chances are 50-50 that it would go one way or the other -- would it be the right thing for us to do to open it up?

For the case of other races, I would say very likely it would NOT be.

Posted by: frankly0 | Jan 20, 2005 11:01:53 AM


Posted by: frankly0

Just one other point.

As I have said, with regard to innate differences in intellectual abilities between races and (perhaps) between genders, scientific ignorance is probably bliss, given that, realistically, it might go either way if pressed forward.

But what I think that too many advocates like, say, Nancy Hopkins make a serious mistake in pushing their claims for women (in her case) as if it is known for a certainty that no such differences exist. It will be spectacularly self-defeating for such advocates to treat as well-established claims that are only speculative. They must find ways of making their cases without seeming like dogmatists. Walking out on Larry Summers' remarks and then denouncing him for even suggesting that it's an open possibility that there are innate differences looks like the behavior of an irrational ideologue. (I'm assuming that that's what Summers' remarks amounted to.)

Posted by: frankly0 | Jan 20, 2005 11:41:34 AM


Posted by: D.A. Ridgely


Heidi: As you note, we properly do not use human beings as lab rats, so we’re not going to get the data that way. (Even if we did, statistical samples can always be challenged as unrepresentative of the population for one reason or another in ways that undermine our confidence in the result.) I specifically picked physics in my comment because it is generally considered the hardest of the hard sciences. Not being a scientist, I couldn’t say, but I could well understand others arguing that until there is such parity throughout all the natural sciences and in mathematics that the question remains open.

Mr. Hu: I agree. My sense of parity, however, included the assumption of such women across that spectrum doing science and math on a par with their male colleagues. As you also note, even that would not convince some people, but convincing everyone is an unrealistic objective.

Perhaps, it’s easier just to re-post my comment, as follows: I suppose I’ve always missed something in these sorts of disputes; that is, nature versus nurture, especially regarding alleged ethnic or gender based differences, e.g., the probably overblown Summers remark. Putting aside for the moment (if that is possible) the sorts of messages we send to children when they hear X people are on average less intelligent than Y people, why would this matter rationally to any particular individual? If the class of all X’s scores lower on IQ tests (or is physically stronger or whatever the claim may be) on average than the class of all Y’s, that says absolutely nothing about the intelligence or IQ of any particular X or Y. Indeed, unless the further claim is made (which I have never heard except from a flat out racist, sexist, etc.) that no X’s are or could be as smart (or whatever) as the smartest Y’s, it doesn't seem to me it should matter at all. I don’t see this as a Left / Right sort of issue at all, though I freely admit that there are all sorts of political agendas behind stressing nature over nurture or vice versa. So I’m serious when I ask, ignoring the sorts of things I have asked we temporarily ignore, why anyone gives a rodent’s hindquarters about these claims as empirical hypotheses?

Thus, I don’t disagree with Mr. Velleman’s desire not to discourage it, per se. I’ll gladly substitute “discourage” where I wrote “forbid.” Hell, I think people should be free to do whatever they want to do subject to vastly fewer constraints than most people would impose. But I wouldn’t pay for it, I wouldn’t say “Sure, that sounds like it’s worth investigating” and I wouldn’t care about the results.

Let me elaborate on this a bit. Earlier, someone mentioned (correctly) that the average woman’s upper body strength would make certain work requiring a great deal of upper body strength difficult or even impossible for that average woman to do. (The example was a fireman carrying people from a burning building.) My position is fairly straightforward, if the standards are not arbitrary (that is, if the attribute in question is really needed to accomplish the required task) then the average woman shouldn’t do that work and neither should any man who doesn’t possess the requisite strength. However, any woman who wants to take the test should be free to do so and any woman who is strong enough should be eligible on the same basis as any man possessed of the requisite strength. None of us is the average man or woman, so the sorts of studies we have been discussing strike me as a waste of time. (Again, if you want to study it, feel free. Just don’t expect me to be interested or supportive.)

I do, however, object to lowering non-arbitrary standards, and that is usually where the disconnect between what I tried to say previously and how Mr. Hu at first read me tends to arise. Perhaps we need to be more clear about how some liberal solutions to perceived distributive injustices play a significant part in all of this.

Posted by: D.A. Ridgely | Jan 20, 2005 12:40:15 PM


Posted by: mikec

One theme that keeps popping up is that we're better off not knowing if there are inate differences in intellectual ability between ethnic groups, or between the sexes. The argument seems to be that we shouldn't be basing any decisions on that information anyway, and we might be tempted to.

I might almost be sympathetic to the the "ignorance is bliss" argument except for one thing. Many of the very same people who make this argument also want me to assume, without any evidence at all, that there are no inate differences. After all, that is the implicit assumption behind the idea that disparities in hiring, admissions, wages, test scores, etc., are prima-facie proof of discrimination.

To put it another way: If you really don't want to find out that men are inately better at math than women, or if you really don't want to find out that Asians are inately better at math than Africans, then stop complaining that there aren't enough females or blacks in the math department. If you complain enough, people are likely to study the issue and they may arrive at answer you don't want to contemplate.

Posted by: mikec | Jan 20, 2005 12:50:15 PM


Posted by: Heidi

DA: When you say that physics is the hardest of the hard sciences, recall that "hard" here is not intended to be a synonym for "difficult". Hard is more like: how rigorously verifiable are the hypotheses? And sciences tend to be easier to verify if what you're verifying is an equation and you can plug numbers in and generate a nice graph and make predictions. Thus: the amount of math generally correlates with the hardness of the science. Bonus points if you generate your equation from first principles. Nobel prizes if you generate your equation from first principles and end up being right.

We can then imagine that science has two principle components: physics (and we'll condescend to Rutherford by calling this math) and stamp-collecting.

Different groups may score differently with respect to each of those components -- thus, female success in biology shows that women are, at least, capable of stamp-collecting. The jury is still out as to whether women are good at math, but the data indicates that there are at least some subjective components: different countries have different rates of female participation in mathematics-like fields.

As to the damage that could be done by answering these questions: I agree that there is some potential damage, but rather than suppressing research or results, I'd rather see people be more educated about statistics in the first place.

Posted by: Heidi | Jan 20, 2005 1:00:11 PM


Posted by: marek

It is possible, I suppose, that those of us who have read the scientific literature from the late 19th and early 20th c. on biological difference, and know where it led politically, may be overly sensitive to the deployment of claims about biological difference. But if you read the links Lynn provided, one strong suspicion is that people whose main area of expertise is not neuroscience, or any other relevant scientific discipline, are cherry-picking the literature for studies that appear to confirm their fairly unexceptional notions of traditonal gender roles and differences. Or, in order to present themselves as iconoclastic challengers of orthodoxy (surely we are right to be as suspicious of this as we are of "political correctness"?)

This relates to the unmentioned criticism of Summers: that he was getting the science wrong, or ignoring the work that suggests the hypothesis is rather shaky. This raises a whole set of issues at the interface of scientific inquiry and public knowledge. One: if a prominent male economist tells you that we ought to take a hypothesis about human biology more seriously, even though it (according to him) clashes with our values, and then a less well known female chemist tells you he isn't giving you an adequate account of the science, what is your immediate impulse? To think the chemist is just "politically correct" and unable to face up to the unpleasant possibility the hypothesis entails? If you wanted to evaluate the claims further, what would you read -- a book by a public policy expert or leading conservative commentator?

The problem, it seems to me, is not merely one of whether to encourage or discourage the investigation of certain hypotheses, however unpopular or controversial -- the issue is how do we think carefully, as a public, about the way scientific claims enter the public sphere, and the way socially prevalent views shape the science. I doubt, for example, that in their own area of research any academic in any field would be willing to say that the public should just take the existing majority consensus in the field as roughly equivalent to the truth of the matter. Probably no one really thinks that one should only believe what is "politically correct," or believe all that is so deemed (by whom, I'd like to know?) -- though it seems to me that many here believe that if it is so deemed, that is a sufficient reason to dismiss the idea. But by what public criteria *ought* we to evaluate scientifically produced knowledge?

Incidentally -- on the male deficiency in language ability -- anyone know the relative proportion of men to women among tenured faculty at top colleges and universities in areas that don't require high level math?

Final aside -- the Pinker quote seems to me to be entirely irrelevant -- the issue isn't are there statistically significant differences in the measured abilities of men and women on some dimension or other, the issue is what explains the observed differences. Of course, Summers' hypothesis isn't that the differences are dichotomous -- it is that they are determined by biology in some way that can't be altered. What Summers' critics say is that he "pompously" lectured leading scientists not to avoid unpleasant explanations for inequalities, while avoiding studies that suggest, for example, that the observed differences disappear when women take math tests without men present.

Posted by: marek | Jan 20, 2005 1:02:40 PM


Posted by: frankly0

To put it another way: If you really don't want to find out that men are inately better at math than women, or if you really don't want to find out that Asians are inately better at math than Africans, then stop complaining that there aren't enough females or blacks in the math department. If you complain enough, people are likely to study the issue and they may arrive at answer you don't want to contemplate.

What is an acceptable number of women or minorities in, say, a math department? In truth, we don't know now whether there are innate differences between races or genders. The point is to figure out policies that seem as fair as they can be in the light (or the darkness) of ignorance on this point. We are often obliged to devise policies that work around our ignorance (sometimes, we even make it part and parcel of a policy, such as "don't ask don't tell").

Affirmative action policies do NOT in my view always require that there be no innate differences, or even that the current representation of a gender or a minority be lower than that which would be predicted by well established innate differences. I don't think anyone will dispute that, say, minorities who get into elite colleges don't do as well academically as others, whether that be based on innate differences or not. That fact does not mean that on balance our universities and our society aren't better off for the diversity and sense of enfranchisement that Affirmative Action brings.

But advocates of Affirmative Action should themselves NOT act as though they know things that they do not about whether innate differences actually exist. Among other things, it's self defeating, because they look like dogmatic fanatics.


Posted by: frankly0 | Jan 20, 2005 1:05:55 PM


Posted by: oliver

"What is important is relevant equality of opportunity for each individual, not equality of results among groups."

But how do we measure equality of opportunity? The absence of free childcare or prenatal care or the legality of abortion all might have very little influence on the probability of a new male Einstein emerging and a great influence on the probability of a female Einstein. Even if male and female minds were identical on average and in distribution, not all things are equal.

Posted by: oliver | Jan 20, 2005 1:18:34 PM


Posted by: oliver

"Even if male and female minds were identical on average and in distribution, AND EVEN IF SOCIAL EXPECTATIONS WERE THE SAME FOR MEN AND WOMEN CAREERWISE, not all things are equal."

Posted by: oliver | Jan 20, 2005 1:21:52 PM


Posted by: frankly0

Still one further point.

I think that David Velleman's point, that we shouldn't be discouraging the scientific pursuit of the question of innate differences between genders or races is EXACTLY wrong. That is PRECISELY what we should be doing: DISCOURAGING such efforts, on moral grounds. Indeed, that is what has been going on over the years, pretty effectively, on these questions.

In fact, there are very few social or other scientists who want to get caught up in this controversy, and they quite deliberately avoid making conclusions from their research along such lines. In my view, this is as it should be. As far as I have ever been able to make out, the question of innate intellectual differences along racial or gender lines serve no larger scientific goal that would justify, on purely scientific grounds, their examination. It's not as if there is some Grand Unifying theory of social or neural or cognitive science that awaits nothing more than a determination of whether there are such innate differences along racial or gender lines. If such scientific knowledge has any real purpose, it is precisely to underpin policy judgments regarding the treatment of races and genders. But if that is the only real purpose of such inquiry, and its scientific value per se is very limited, how can we justify its pursuit, if the downside is a truly pernicious one?

Now it may be that, some day, in the progress of other scientific pursuits, results will fall straight out that inescapably establish one way or the other whether there are innate intellectual differences along racial or gender lines. I can only say that we are nowhere near there yet. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof -- or, less pompously, we can cross that bridge when we come to it.

In the meantime, I see no reason not to prolong our ignorance on these issues, until the day comes when our society is less likely to impose rigid destructive stereotypes to certain races or genders (and who can doubt but that we are better off today in that way then we were in the 50s?)

Posted by: frankly0 | Jan 20, 2005 1:33:01 PM


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