Thursday, January 20, 2005

Newsflash: Science Tries to Explain Observed Phenomenon

WRT Mr. Summers remarks, (and kind of responding to Sean Carroll) I just can't find them so offensive. Back in the day when the Moderns tried to live according to Natural Law, such a remark would have been damning. By saying that it is not society, but rather nature that has put women in their place, the Moderns believed that society should attempt to preserve the Natural Order.
We now use science not as a tool for levying judgment, but rather to help humanity (ok, try to help). So if we see that a family is short, we will give them the option of giving GhG to the kids to help them grow taller. We don't say "You are bad because you are short." If science were to determine that women in fact were at a disadvantage then we could find ways to equal the balance.
Aside for the role of science, many people are gifted with many different talents. Venus Williams could kick my ass in tennis. But she is a woman, you respond. Doesn't matter, she could still kick my ass. Point is just because women are worse at some things than men does not mean that any given specimen is better or worse than any other. In tennis, however, we have seating to tell us who is better than who. In science there is a lot more to do, such as hard work, asking the right questions, rigorous quant. analysis etc. So even physicist who are not as good as others can still "be the best". (all my physics profs claim that they were "not the best in their class"). Thus, why any individual women gets offended is beyond me.
Even if we do say that women don't get it as fast as men, we are only making a descriptive comment, we are not saying anything prescriptive. As a closing comment; if there is discrimination against women it must be aressted. That is independent, in my mind, from saying that there might also be gender proclivities.


jacob said...

I agree with you that the comments are not so offensive but for a different reason. I cant follow your logic in the last paragraph. Why cant one, as a member of a group, be offended at comments aimed at that group simply because the comments do not apply to him specificly? The best paradigm to analyze these questions is race because things seem to be clearer when one puts them in terms of black/white. You cannot say that a black man cannot be offended at racist remarks simply because the racist generalisations dont apply to him.
The real reason why the remarks arent so offensive is becasue they might be true. As I often say, "it is a question of fact." All Summers was saying was that science needs to study the inate differences between men and women and how those differences impact ones potential and capability to succeed at differnet subjects. Implied in that statement is that women are probably better suited than men at other subjects. Since he was speaking to scientists he spoke about math and science. We have to resist the temptation to explain away all "problems" of underrepresentation as sexism/racism/homophobia/etc.

Zev said...

OK, point taken, people can get offended at racial/misogenist/... slurs. There is a dimention to the issue which is that it is not absurd. That is, to explain that Jews are a certain way or Latinos are a certain way is scientifically unsound (for reasons of genetics etc) but as Mr. Carroll points out, men and women are different, the question is then, to what degree. I will have to think about the question "When should one take offense?" more.
Additionally I posted a comment on PU and said that there are more women in bio than physics. I spoke with one of the heads of undergrad. physics this morning and he told me that there are considerably more women in math than physics. So my assumption of a linear decay with greater math intensity was wrong. That having been said, we don't have any female full professors in Math here, I think we have one in Physics.

miriam said...

hmm. while it's all very nice to say that science is about the rigorous pursuit of truth, and there's nothing wrong with that, people on the receiving end of a lot of past scientific theories have some pretty bad memories. eugenics was science, as was the idea of "hysteria" and all sorts of other lovely "facts" that one couldn't complain about because they were just true.

so while ideally what is learned would be of the same social import as most population-biology of the zebra-fish or tree-moth variety (zev's idea of injecting women with math-hormone aside), that seems unlikely to happen here.

it may not seem "fair" to evaluate science based on its sociological implications, even in areas in which "objective" research has such a long history of not being objective (or, rather, of relying on more, and more debatable, preconceptions than initially acknowleged). but, given that the pursuit of truth is only one (and probably not the most important) of the values of "our society" (however its defined), i'm comfortable with a temporary taboo until we are confident that we've corrected whatever problems led to the misuse of such science in the past.

zev alleges one difference between then and now regarding natural law. i would counter that we may not be in the business of actively enforcing natural law, but we do act based on our perceptions of the general state of affairs. so the question becomes whether it makes any difference when something that is generally true and perceptible by everyone (eg, women aren't good at math, or men are stupid about _____, or whatever) has the stamp of scientific research backing it up. ie, would a capable female mathematician have a harder time proving it (getting recognition, getting jobs, etc) if it was "ok" (scientifically correct) to say that women are generally bad at math? i think the real backlash, aside from a general (foolish?) desire to believe that no generalizations about groups of people are true, is based on the belief that the answer to that question is yes.

one reason the answer might be no (ie, an actual then/now distinction) may be this: because ideas have changed so much on this issue, and there are partisans on all sides *with scientific power* (eg, labs) now, which there weren't always, we may be in a better position to let the scientific process work itself out robustly now than we were in the past, and less likely to end up with scientifically prescribed discrimination. ie, maybe we're at a mature enough place, as a society, to actually deal with the implications of our study of reality in a humane and non-fascist way. or maybe we should really stick to zebra fish.

sorry for the length, but you touched a bunch of my favorite things to discourse-ize aimlessly about...