Monday, May 07, 2012

The Ghost Of Lawrence Summers' Comments on Women And Mathematics

Will forever haunt us.

Or rather, this Chris Hayes show suggests that the scales of unfair science denial are somewhat equated when the conservatives deny climate change and the liberals refuse to discuss racial and gender differences in IQ or innate gender differences in general.  This is what one of the guests,  Jonathan Haidt, says, beginning at about 4 minutes and 57 seconds.  Watch the following few minutes and then note who tries to say something there and does not succeed.

Jonathan Haidt has talked about Lawrence Summers' comments before:
The fields of psychology, sociology and anthropology have long attracted liberals, but they became more exclusive after the 1960s, according to Dr. Haidt. “The fight for civil rights and against racism became the sacred cause unifying the left throughout American society, and within the academy,” he said, arguing that this shared morality both “binds and blinds.”
“If a group circles around sacred values, they will evolve into a tribal-moral community,” he said. “They’ll embrace science whenever it supports their sacred values, but they’ll ditch it or distort it as soon as it threatens a sacred value.” It’s easy for social scientists to observe this process in other communities, like the fundamentalist Christians who embrace “intelligent design” while rejecting Darwinism. But academics can be selective, too, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan found in 1965 when he warned about the rise of unmarried parenthood and welfare dependency among blacks — violating the taboo against criticizing victims of racism.
“Moynihan was shunned by many of his colleagues at Harvard as racist,” Dr. Haidt said. “Open-minded inquiry into the problems of the black family was shut down for decades, precisely the decades in which it was most urgently needed. Only in the last few years have liberal sociologists begun to acknowledge that Moynihan was right all along.”
Similarly, Larry Summers, then president of Harvard, was ostracized in 2005 for wondering publicly whether the preponderance of male professors in some top math and science departments might be due partly to the larger variance in I.Q. scores among men (meaning there are more men at the very high and very low ends). “This was not a permissible hypothesis,” Dr. Haidt said. “It blamed the victims rather than the powerful. The outrage ultimately led to his resignation. We psychologists should have been outraged by the outrage. We should have defended his right to think freely.”

What fun!   I have looked at the extreme-tails hypothesis in a fairly recent post, and it looks quite a bit more complicated than the implicit assumption Haidt seems to have:  That men simply are more likely to always score more in the high tail and the low tail of any particular test distribution.

So what did I write about Summers' comments in 2005?  It took me some time to dig those posts up but here they are:

Part I

Part II

Part III

Hmm.  Those posts still look to me as if I'm discussing the theories Summers presented, to the extent they could be discussed in 2005.  But I guess Haidt didn't refer to unknown weird bloggers when he talks about how the left savaged Summers.   That the right sorta joined in (to defend Summers and to, incidentally,  savage women)  he also ignores.

The overall topic of the Chris Hayes program deserves a completely separate post so I'm not going to address it here, except to note that I sense a certain kind of compromise proposal in the works in Haidt's mind:  Give them the "science" they like and maybe then they will accept the "science" we like!

Perhaps I'm wrong about that.  But my view of research is much more complicated than those that cropped up in the discussion which appeared to suggest that all science (including hypotheses which cannot be empirically tested) is somehow equally reliable, that no scientist has particular prior biases and that every new study is without problems until other researchers point those out.

That self-correcting approach probably works over eons.  It doesn't work terribly well in the short run, and the reason is that theories themselves create those bonded groups.  If a sub-field has only one set of basic theories (such as inside evolutionary psychology) then the criticisms cannot come from inside, and the academic reward structure doesn't provide incentives for outsiders to offer their criticisms.

As a slightly different example, there is no general field of "gender similarities" to counteract the field of "gender differences," as an example.  Janet Hyde has written on gender similarities and has been called biased because of that.    But those who choose to work on gender differences cannot be without prior beliefs themselves and those tend to be of the type which make someone choose to look for differences, not for similarities.

All this is a far cry from the simple arguments that people like some science and hate other science and pick just on that basis, though of course that happens, all the time.   But this does not mean that everything printed somewhere as a study is equally reliable or necessarily problem-free, and it does not mean that Lawrence Summers' utterances about a field he is not an expert in should be regarded as part of scientific inquiry.