Thursday, November 16, 2006

Political Correctness - Again!

A new study argues that fertility can explain all the differences in the career paths between male and female scientists after they have entered the field with PhDs. I have downloaded the study but have not read it yet, because I got sidetracked into writing about the reactions to it in two posts and the related comments threads.

One post is by Matthew Yglesias and the other by Tyler Cowen, and to see why this comparison will be fun you need to know that Cowen labeled his post the "Politically Incorrect Paper of the Month" and that Yglesias answered by labeling his "Incorrect?" Guys drawing their swords for us. So cute.

Now that was mean of me. I'm quite happy to see Yglesias stand up for people like me, and I don't mind Cowen not standing up for people like me. It's just that I'm terribly sick of the term "politically incorrect" as some sort of a label of great valor, of great truth-telling, of great honesty. People who proudly say they are politically incorrect never smear themselves or anybody powerful, you know, and it doesn't take great courage to bash someone everybody else is also already bashing.

And it isn't great truth-telling to read a post about a study which starts with a group of both male and female PhDs in science and then somehow end up fighting over whether Lawrence Summers, the ex-president of Harvard, was unfairly treated when he suggested that his young daughter's relative uninterest in trucks is something scientists should take into account before forcing him to try to dig up more female scientists.

On a more elemental level, what all the politically incorrect people are saying is something like this: Ah! We knew it all along! Women can't do science because they are...women! Never mind if it's their brain that is at fault or their uterus. In any case, it's nature, and to talk about nature is politically incorrect even though it's also very majestic and makes us bold and heroic.

Or so I imagine the monologue to proceed. In reality fertility gets all mixed up with the way societies are structured and the way the labor market rewards people and it's naive to argue that these things have no differential effect on women. Just take the example of the tenure clock in academia. It starts striking right around the same time when most women also want to have children if they are going to have them. There is no biological need to organize tenure in this way, but the societal decision to do so interacts with women's fertility in ways which have differential outcomes for men and women.

The way academia is organized was initially based on celibate professors working and living in colleges, you know. The reason why it worked, sort of, for a long time was that having a full-time wife at home also lets the professor pretty much live and work at the college. Most women professors don't have full-time wives.

This topic pisses me off right now, because I still desire more election gloating time but it's always open season for feminists. Sigh.

I was thinking about something quite different the other day. It will be interesting to see if I can make the connection from that topic to this fertility debate. The topic I mused over was the Evolutionary Psychology argument (the capitalization refers to the weird type of arguments, not the field on the whole) that men somehow have evolved to be more interested in traveling and all things not at home. This has been used to explain why men took over trade, for example, and why women ended up with fewer resources. The reason for women's lesser adventurousness is now posited to be in our genes, and the world out there is seen as neutral to today's men and women, so that if women travel less it's supposed to be because of some meme in our pink brains.

But suppose now that I could morph into two versions, one male and one female, but otherwise with the same interests. Which of those two versions would I send to take a trip to Iran or to Saudi Arabia or to many other similar countries? The guy version, of course. Because the world out there is NOT neutral to men and women. There are countries where women can't do anything much on their own, and in many places a woman traveling alone is fair game for rape and harassment. In a way the most fanatic Evolutionary Psychologists forget that the environment in which we live is not just the natural environment but also the human-made environment, and that for women the environment also consists of the way men behave. What is tricky about all this is that a man might never "see" the environment a woman sees, because he will not be treated in the same manner, and so he could quite sincerely not see the immediate problems women face.

And I haven't even pointed out the fact that the average woman has less money for traveling than the average man and that in many cultures women are not allowed to travel without permission from a father or a husband and so on.

This probably doesn't carry into the other topic. My intention is to point out that to talk about "fertility" as something purely biological and somehow outside our ability to incorporate into the way the society actually works is a cop-out.