Front page

Are you afraid of the dark?

(Click to invert colors, weenie.) (Requires JavaScript.)

All email will be assumed to be for publication unless otherwise requested.

What's in the banner?

Monday, February 28, 2005

Summers Soldiers

The Larry Summers flap is the Kerfuffle That Will Not Die. Viewing the positions taken by the two sides (strangely, although there shouldn't be, there are essentially only two sides), I find myself recalling the sentiments of somebody-or-other regarding the Iran-Iraq war: Is there a way they can both lose?

In this corner we have MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins, who went into hysterics at the suggestion that maybe possibly perhaps not quite so many women are intrinsically suited to the highest levels of scientific research as men. And in this corner we have the righty blogosphere, in the comments at Chicagoboyz, and Asymmetrical Information and INDC Journal.

As I said before, Hopkins's imitation of a fainting flower of femininity, didn't do her any credit (if she starts a blog, maybe Michele and Ilyka will let her use this banner). However, I don't think the commenters linked above exactly cover themselves in glory either.

Collectively, their comments seem to indicate -- and I write this to provoke thought, as the man said -- that they're relieved that someone's finally said what everyone already knows, and that's that wimmin just ain't no good at sciency thinkin' and suchlike, and we should all just admit it and make 'em go back to birthin' babies (and we can stop havin' to compete with 'em, 'cause it makes us feel small when we can't).

Having now read the transcript (which I didn't think existed -- I thought these were rather off-the-cuff remarks, and there was no mention of a recording), I have a little more sympathy for Hopkins's hysteria.

His remarks on the percentages of men and women in the high end of tests (he refers to Xie and Shauman's book, presumably this one, but he doesn't say what kind of tests he's referring to -- achievment, aptitude, intelligence) sticks to facts, at least as they're known now, and so there's not a lot to say about them.

The early blog reports of his talk stressed the studies. It sounded to me as if he'd made an off-hand remark along the lines of, "The under-representation of women may be due to this, or this, or it may really be innate, and we should study that..." All pretty innocuous.

But in reality he starts to develop the "innate" theme by treading on the uncertain ground of anecdote. One of these dealt with kibbutzes where, despite earnest attempts to diversify people's skills, everyone eventually drifted back into traditional roles. Another (much lamer) was about his toddler daughters referring to the "daddy" truck and the "baby" truck.

Pardon me if I'm unimpressed that adults (he didn't say what timescale was involved; I'm assuming these are adults) will, of their own accord, gravitate to tasks they have become familiar with and competent in, and avoid unfamiliar ones. As for his daughters, this could be a sign of an innate female tendency to classify everything in terms of family relationships, or it could be that they think of "daddy" as a synonym for "large" and "baby" as a synonym for "small".

Still, though, not really material worth pitching a hissy fit over, in my opinion. Until we come to this:

The second problem is the one that Gary Becker very powerfully pointed out in addressing racial discrimination many years ago. If it was really the case that everybody was discriminating, there would be very substantial opportunities for a limited number of people who were not prepared to discriminate to assemble remarkable departments of high quality people at relatively limited cost simply by the act of their not discriminating, because of what it would mean for the pool that was available.

I assume the Gary Becker he's talking about is this one, an economics Nobel laureate.

Orwell once famously said that there are some ideas so stupid only an academic could believe them, and I guess that must scale up: there are some things so fatuous that only a Nobel laureate would believe them.

I'm sure Becker would be absolutely right, if people made decisions based solely on economics. But they very famously do not (or else I wouldn't be a) wasting time writing this because I'd b) be in some field that paid a lot better than science). For example, you'd think financial reasons would ensure that a ball team would be thrilled to have an excellent player, no matter what his skin color:

Jackie Robinson had to be bigger than life. He had to be bigger than the Brooklyn teammates who got up a petition to keep him off the ball club...bigger than the bench jockeys who hollered for him to carry their bags and shine their shoes, bigger than the so-called fans who mocked him with mops on their heads and wrote him death threats.

Sadly for the best-laid theories of economists, people sometimes make decisions on other bases, such as pride, or prejudice. Sometimes they even justify such decisions on the basis of economics, as when white people didn't want black people as neighbors, on the grounds that the property values would go down. Or, as a long-ago female aspiring airline pilot was told (in a book whose name I can't remember, and neither can Google), "If a passenger walks in and sees a skirt in the left seat, he's gonna turn around and walk right out."

So if that's the remark that turned Nancy Hopkins's stomach, I can't say I'm surprised. Her subsequent fainting spell -- and the collective wave of wailing and gnashing of teeth that went along with it -- is embarrassing. But then so are the self-congratulatory smug banks wafting from conservative blogs.