Dr. Andy

Reflections on medicine and biology among other things

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Summers, Sexism and Free Discussion

The brouhaha over Harvard president Larry Summers speculating that men had a biological advantage towards excelling in math and the hard sciences is dying down, but I couldn't resist commenting on this editorial by Andrew Marks, editor of the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

My basic feeling on Summers' remarks can be summarized as

1. There may be some truth in his hypothesis

2. A larger factor currently is cultural. To reach the upper echelons in science requires a tremendous amount of time and dedication, in addition to talent. Many more men are willing to make the sacrafices required, not least because it is much easier for a man to focus on his work and still have some semblence of a "normal" personal life (spouse, children) than it is for a women
Whether this is inevitable and how much if any effort society should put into changing the dynamic is not clear to me, but it's existence is impossible to deny.

3. The outrage over Summers' comments shows just how smothering the blanket of political correctness has become in much of academia.

So what is Dr. Mark's take?
The current system for recruitment and career development in the sciences is biased toward the success of white males, hence the lack of women and minorities in the system (1). To suggest otherwise is to turn a blind eye to the gross inequities that are pervasive throughout academia with regard to providing opportunities for women
Got it? Dr. Marks makes no attempt to refute Summers' hypothesis. The lack of women and minorities at upper levels of science is, IN AND OF ITSELF proof of bias against them. No need for discussion or evidence.

He goes on to recite the usual statistics about the decreasing % of women at each step up the ladder (grad student, asst professor and so on) and cites that as proof that discrimination is the only possible culprit.

But wouldn't Summers' hypothesis predict the same thing? Since we are talking about the extreme right end of a distribution with progressively higher standards, any less able group would be increasingly underrepresented with each step.
Perhaps Dr. Summers thinks there could be a gene on the Y chromosome that is activated during the assistant-to-associate professor transition. Otherwise, the argument that there are innate differences underlying the paucity of women in more advanced positions in the sciences and medicine does not hold water.
The only thing that doesn't hold water here is Dr. Marks logic.

His solution is even better:
Given that there is a simple explanation for the lack of diversity in science and engineering, i.e., the lack of effort to diversify, there should also be a simple solution. . . . Academic leaders simply need to raise awareness about the lack of diversity and then set about to correct it.
See? it is that easy. Just a little bit of consciousness raising and the problem goes away. I find it hard to believe Marks seriously thinks that simply raising awareness of diversity will make a big difference. Whatever factors cause the imbalance of sexes at the upper levels of the sciences, lack of awareness of diversity is not among them. Academia is obsessed with diversity.

Look I agree with a lot of what Marks says: that cultural factors are important and that we need to make accomodation for women (and I'd add men) who want to take time off for their family. I disagree with his belief that equality of outcome, not just equality of opportunity needs to be enforced, but that is a legitimate difference of opinion.

But it is asinine to suggest that there could be no validity to Summers' suggestion and that we should just dismiss it out of hand.


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