Wednesday, February 09, 2005

The Thoughtful Steven Pinker

He has deigned to give a few carefully formed comments on the hullabaloo that ensued from the careless statements of Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard University, at a conference about how to get more women into the hard sciences. I blogged about this earlier if you are interested in the details. For now I want to talk to Professor Pinker, because he is an interesting man to talk to.

He's a warrior on President Summer's team, a warrior who wields his keyboard deftly and smartly. Listen to this:

Summers did not, of course, say that women are "natively inferior," that "they just can't cut it," that they suffer "an inherent cognitive deficit in the sciences," or that men have "a monopoly on basic math ability," as many academics and journalists assumed. Only a madman could believe such things.

I remember hearing a radio interview with Pinker when his book The Blank Slate came out, and he used the same madman-argument to clear the deck of any accusation that he might be an essentialist. As few researchers would call themselves madmen, this clever trick means that we can now dispense with any exploration of Professor Pinker's own possible biases, and can go on to study the biases of his opponents. Like this:

Conservative columnists have had a field day pointing to the Harvard hullabaloo as a sign of runaway political correctness at elite universities. Indeed, the quality of discussion among the nation's leading scholars and pundits is not a pretty sight. Summers's critics have repeatedly mangled his suggestion that innate differences might be one cause of gender disparities (a suggestion that he drew partly from a literature review in my book, The Blank Slate) into the claim that they must be the only cause. And they have converted his suggestion that the statistical distributions of men's and women's abilities are not identical to the claim that all men are talented and all women are not--as if someone heard that women typically live longer than men and concluded that every woman lives longer than every man. Just as depressing is an apparent unfamiliarity with the rationale behind political equality, as when Hopkins sarcastically remarked that, if Summers were right, Harvard should amend its admissions policy, presumably to accept fewer women. This is a classic confusion between the factual claim that men and women are not indistinguishable and the moral claim that we ought to judge people by their individual merits rather than the statistics of their group.

Conservative columnists always have a field day. If there is no reason for one, they invent it. But Pinker's summary of the issues is partial: he fails to address all the reasoned responses from feminists and progressives, and he fails to mention the truly outrageous statements on many of the anti-feminist and conservative websites and blogs. This makes the unreasonableness appear solely something that takes place among the liberals and feminists, not something that might even infect careful researchers such as Professor Pinker.

In any case, our careful researcher then goes on to summarize various studies which demonstrate gender differences on the average. He doesn't summarize the studies which don't support these findings or the studies which address the whole question of what we are actually trying to measure with the various tests. All this reads "biased" in my book.

Pinker's supporting examples of evidence are interesting. Take this one, for instance:

Anyone who has fled a cluster of men at a party debating the fine points of flat-screen televisions can appreciate that fewer women than men might choose engineering, even in the absence of arbitrary barriers. (As one female social scientist noted in Science Magazine, "Reinventing the curriculum will not make me more interested in learning how my dishwasher works.") To what degree these and other differences originate in biology must be determined by research, not fatwa. History tells us that how much we want to believe a proposition is not a reliable guide as to whether it is true.

Here we are to replace scientific evidence with anecdotes about what people talk about in parties or with one person's confessions. I know of a six-year old girl who took the family iron apart to find out how it works, and then couldn't put it back together. Who knows how many other things she had examined before she was caught in the act? But this is anecdotal evidence, and not to be admitted if it comes from my side of the aisle, the unreasonable one, the one which believes (despite all evidence to the contrary) that women and men are exactly identical at birth.

This is all rubbish, of course. There are no feminists who believe that women and men are biologically exactly the same, though there seem to be a very large number of anti-feminists who never see the most obvious difference between the two sexes which is the fact that women give birth. Anti-feminists want to have more science to find out what really distinguishes the sexes, all the while letting their eyes glide over the pregnant bellies of their coworkers or the countless young women pushing prams outside.

The reason for this bias is of course the political importance of gender differences. Anyone who believes that men and women should not be treated equally must base this belief on some form of innate differences. Feminists know this, and that is why the history of biased Victorian gender science is important to keep in mind. Pinker gives a nod to this argument, but then goes on glibly to place total trust in the newer generation of findings. Nobody, but nobody can be impartial in this field, and Pinker is not the sole exception here. He has an axe to grind, and that is to protect the views on which he has based his own research and writing. I also have an axe, of course, but you can see what it is and how sharply honed it always stays.

The differences that gender science may find are going to be put to political uses pretty fast. Even if the results are based on faulty methods and data, the harm the political applications will do is real. This is the reason why it is so important to insist on transparency and high methodical competency from all practitioners of gender science, and why it is very important not to have a value bias among this group towards one sex or the other. Currently there is such a general bias, as even a cursory reading of the studies reveals, and that is one of slight misogyny. In other words, not all science is somehow above politics or even above cheating, and all science should be approached with a very critical mind.

But Pinker is not too concerned about this. He does hint that he would love the world to be fairer and more equal if only facts would let that be the case, and he repeatedly reminds us how wrong discrimination is, before he goes on to tell us about the dangers of reverse discrimination if we ignore gender science.

Actually, I agree with Pinker on one of his arguments: that we should encourage good science on innate gender differences. The real question is how to do this. How would Pinker create a study which would tell us, for once and for all, what the real cognitive differences between men and women are? We actually don't have the tools to do this today, and this is the main reason why I find Pinker's elegant impartiality so insulting. He's willing to settle for JustSo stories from evolutionary psychology in lieue of proper genetic biology:

Since most sex differences are small and many favor women, they don't necessarily give an advantage to men in school or on the job. But Summers invoked yet another difference that may be more consequential. In many traits, men show greater variance than women, and are disproportionately found at both the low and high ends of the distribution. Boys are more likely to be learning disabled or retarded but also more likely to reach the top percentiles in assessments of mathematical ability, even though boys and girls are similar in the bulk of the bell curve. The pattern is readily explained by evolutionary biology. Since a male can have more offspring than a female--but also has a greater chance of being childless (the victims of other males who impregnate the available females)--natural selection favors a slightly more conservative and reliable baby-building process for females and a slightly more ambitious and error-prone process for males. That is because the advantage of an exceptional daughter (who still can have only as many children as a female can bear and nurse in a lifetime) would be canceled out by her unexceptional sisters, whereas an exceptional son who might sire several dozen grandchildren can more than make up for his dull childless brothers. One doesn't have to accept the evolutionary explanation to appreciate how greater male variability could explain, in part, why more men end up with extreme levels of achievement.

I'm not an evolutionary psychologist, only a goddess, but I have trouble with this myth of our prehistory. It's a very popular myth these days, this idea of the happy male who casts around buckets of high-quality sperm while the careful and coy females tend their one or two babies with great care. For one thing, a fertilized egg is not the same as a child brought to a point where that child can himself or herself breed further. Prehistory must not have been an easy life for pregnant women, and I find it very hard to believe that the buckets of sperm all took so easily as this myth explains. It's at least worth considering whether the men who stuck around one or two women got a greater yield by providing food, protection, sex, childcare and friendship. They also would have kept some of the bucket brigade away.

For another thing, this myth doesn't explain what Pinker seems to think it should. If indeed only the most technically minded men somehow managed to procreate, the men who do so poorly in mathematical tests that they are at the other end of the distribution should not exist. How come did their genes sneak in, too? No, for Pinker's explanation to be correct we should not observe greater male variability at both tails of the distribution.

I could go on, but I hope that the gist of my complaints is visible by now. What angers me about Pinker's approach is his "holier-than-thou" pretense combined with some very sneaky biases. At least I actually am holier than any of you thous out there and my biases are all goddess-sized.