Sunday, February 20, 2005

Larry Summers in the fall

John Hennessey, Susan Hockfield and Shirley Tilghman (hereafter ‘HHT’) are, respectively, a computer scientist and president of Stanford University; a neuroscientist and president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and a molecular geneticist and president of Princeton University.

In the spirit of repressing scientific inquiry they recently gave some advice to Harvard president Larry Summers after he had the temerity to ask a question about “under-representation” of female scientists at elite universities. He asked, based on a significant body of supportive scientific research, whether the phenomenon could be due partly to “innate” differences between men and women. He also discussed several other factors that might contribute. He made these comments in a forum the purpose of which was to confront controversial questions.

In other words, he screwed up big time. He has the National Organization for Women calling for his resignation and he is contending with university presidents who check their credentials in academic freedom at the door of feminist dogma. If only he’d had the wisdom to merely fondle an intern.

Hennessey, Hockfield and Tilghman deplore "Speculation that "innate differences" may be a significant cause for the under-representation of women in science and engineering [because that speculation] may rejuvenate old myths and reinforce negative stereotypes and biases."

Never mind the facts, asking reasonable questions reinforces old 'myths'.

In their veiled attack on Summers, HHT invoke anecdote, misdirection, a “straw-person” and, insofar as they give us any guidance at all about what they propose, promote statism as the answer.

Anecdote - Marie Curie “exploded” the myth that women cannot succeed in science and math a century ago.

Is there no more recent example? Why not? What about Susan Hockfield and Shirley Tilghman? Is the argument that women have had less opportunity since Marie Curie’s time? Then make it. If Curie didn’t need federally subsidized day care, why not?

Misdirection -“Our nation faces increasing competition from abroad in technological innovation, the most powerful driver of our economy, while the academic performance of our school-age students in math and science lags behind many countries.”

Could there just possibly be causes, other than orders from the patriarchy, for US children lagging behind other countries? Could it be government schools just aren’t interested in their customers? Does this say anything at all about the relative performance of males and females in other countries? I.e., the actual topic?

Straw-man -“…it is imperative that we tap the talent and perspectives of both males and females.”

And who is it that is proposing otherwise? The question is; how can we best do it? The authors are silent aside from proposing greater government intervention in an area where it already has a sorry track record.

Statism -“As a society we must develop methods for assessing present and future productivity that take into account the long-term potential of an individual and encourage greater harmony between the cycles of work and life…”

Women who wish to be mothers and have high powered careers should not face a choice, but should be supported by the government. Remember the crèches in Aldus Huxley’s Brave New World?

Whether some form of increased "encouragement of greater harmony" is the best use of resources to solve the problems they portray is left to the imagination of the reader.

They argue that we can fix this if we change the rules; The rules of language: The rules of biology: The rules of logic. I will ask where in the world these rules have been tried, and where they have worked? The answers are everywhere and nowhere.

The variety of physical and social circumstances in which women have found themselves is, surely, just about as great as the variety which is possible for any class of persons. Women have been pirates and poets, princes and paupers, priests and prostitutes: you name it, some women have been it, if it is logically and biologically possible for a woman to be it.

Almost every conceivable factor, therefore, which might have been thought to constitute an impediment to the intellectual performance of some women, has been removed in the case of some other women. Yet their intellectual performance, or at least the comparison of it with the intellectual performance of men, has not varied.

This is true of the variety in women's circumstances which occurs spontaneously between or within societies; but the same is true of that variety in women's circumstances which has been introduced by human contrivance.

Wherever some defect has been found or imagined in existing arrangements for the education of females, energetic and ingenious people have always been busy setting up a form of education free from that real or supposed defect. Novel schemes of education, intended among other things to remove obstacles to the exercise of the intellectual capacity of women, are at least as old as Plato, and hundreds of them have been put into more or less widespread practice.

Yet despite all this variety in the supposed causes of female intellectual performance, the effects have been singularly invariant. I do not mean that these schemes of education have never had any effect at all on female intellectual performance.

I do not know, but it is in any case indifferent to my thesis, whether they have or not. My thesis only requires, what is the case, that educational innovations have never shown any significant tendency to bridge the gap between male and female intellectual performance.
-Australian philosopher David Stove, The Intellectual Capacity of Women.

HHT are right about one thing, there is a negative stereotype being reinforced here. However, it is more reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition or a Stalinist show-trial than of the free inquiry supposedly a feature of academic excellence. One wonders how telling Larry Summers to “shut up” can be squared with the academic freedom defense mounted on behalf of, say, a Ward Churchill.

Hennessey, Hockfield and Tilghman have circled the wagons - with Larry Summers in the center. When he’s fallen, the targets they’ll find in their sights will be each other.