Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Pink, Pinker, Pinkest: Why Can't a Woman Be More Like a Man?

Someone posted a link to this 2006 article on Facebook yesterday.  (At first I mistook it for a more recent publication.  You see what happens when you assume.)   It's about a neurobiologist named Ben Barres, who was born female but transitioned to male in the 1990s, and discovered that he and his work were treated very differently than when he was a woman.  When he was an undergraduate at MIT,
An M.I.T. professor accused me of cheating on this test. I was the only one in the class who solved a particular problem, and he said my boyfriend must have solved it for me. One, I did not have a boyfriend. And two, I solved it myself, goddamn it! But it did not occur to me to think of sexism. I was just indignant that I would be accused of cheating.
Years later, after his transition, he gave a presentation at MIT, and, "a friend later told him, one scientist turned to another and remarked what a great seminar it had been, adding, 'Ben Barres’s work is much better than his sister’s.'"  You guessed it: Barres doesn't have a sister -- the work being deprecated was his/her own.  The only thing that had changed was the name attached to it.

What makes the Washington Post article so interesting is that they invited some of the men Barres criticized to respond.  Larry Summers didn't, but Peter Lawrence and Steven Pinker did, and both declared "convincing data show there are differences between men and women in a host of mental abilities."
Pinker, who said he is a feminist, said experiments have shown, on average, that women are better than men at mathematical calculation and verbal fluency, and that men are better at spatial visualization and mathematical reasoning. It is hardly surprising, he said, that in his own field of language development, the number of women outstrips men, while in mechanical engineering, there are far more men.

"Is it essential to women's progress that women be indistinguishable from men?" he asked. "It confuses the issue of fairness with sameness. Let's say the data shows sex differences. Does it become okay to discriminate against women? The moral issue of treating individuals fairly should be kept separate from the empirical issues."
Well!  If Steven Pinker says he's a feminist, then he couldn't possibly be biased, could he?  Besides, he's a scientist, and an atheist besides, so he's rational and honest by definition; only religious fundamentalists try to keep women down.  His dishonesty and plain foolishness, which I've seen before, surprised even me.  Sure, there is some evidence of "average" differences between men and women in certain domains, though it's disputed.  But average differences don't mean much.  That men, on average, may be "better at spatial visualization and mathematical reasoning," doesn't tell us the amount of variation among men, or among women.  The amount of difference in the averages also matter.  Many women will be better at spatial visualization and mathematical reasoning than most men are; if you assume that a woman can't do good scientific or mathematical work because she's a woman -- like the MIT prof who refused to believe that Barbara Barres had solved a difficult math problem, and accused her (nonexistent) boyfriend of doing it for her -- then you're not just biased, you're showing that you don't understand averages in a very basic way.  Either way, you're not competent to teach or evaluate would-be scientists.

By Pinker's logic, men shouldn't teach classes involving "language fluency," meaning not only grammar but probably literature as well.  But men have traditionally dominated higher education in the humanities, including literature classes, and have accorded the writing of men greater value than that of women.  (So do most women, it seems.  But in what other area than gender do the primitive myths and misconceptions of the masses get respect from enlightened scientists?)  To this day they try to rationalize their judgments, but clearly (if Pinker were right) they're just ignoring the science of gender differences.  Contrary to Pinker's protestation, though, the "moral issue of treating individuals fairly" is inseparable from "the empirical issues," because unfair treatment of women is an empirical issue.

The article Barres published in Nature is available online.  It combines anecdotal accounts of bias against women in science and mathematics with references to research that shows how bias works.  There's considerable literature on discrimination against women in the sciences, from women being denied access to laboratories because their ladyparts would affect the accuracy of the delicate scientific equipment to women being denied credit for their work -- often work of considerable importance, like the discovery of nuclear fission.  Lise Meitner, who made crucial contributions to that discovery, was overlooked when it came time to award a Nobel Prize for it.  The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science (The Feminist Press, 2010), by Julie Des Jardins, covers Meitner's case, as well as more mundane examples of the barriers female scientists had to contend with; so does Margaret Wertheim's Pythagoras's Trousers: God, Physics, and the Gender War (Norton, 1997).  Bias against women may not be "a primary factor" in the lower numbers of women in certain fields, but it's clearly a significant one, and Pinker's denial is not persuasive, since he fails to comprehend the issues involved.

Peter Lawrence is no better:
Lawrence said it is a "utopian" idea that "one fine day, there will be an equal number of men and women in all jobs, including those in scientific research."

He said a range of cognitive differences could partly account for stark disparities, such as at his own institute, which has 56 male and six female scientists. But even as he played down the role of sexism, Lawrence said the "rat race" in science is skewed in favor of pushy, aggressive people -- most of whom, he said, happen to be men.

"We should try and look for the qualities we actually need," he said. "I believe if we did, that we would choose more women and more gentle men. It is gentle people of all sorts who are discriminated against in our struggle to survive."
The incoherence of his remarks is interesting.  It may be utopian to aim for equal numbers of men and women in all jobs, but I don't think Barres is calling for equal numbers; he's calling for an end to bias that keeps talented and qualified women out of fields they want to enter.  Beyond that, Lawrence goes all mushy and touchy-feely in advocating that "we" (who's "we," by the way? hiring committees?) should "choose more women and more gentle men."  This is a common move by apologists for bias and injustice, by the way.  (Like Barack Obama lauding the work of Gandhi and King in his Nobel Prize address before dismissing it as utopian: "I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people.")  It's part of the standard defense of the scientific status quo that knowledge is not advanced by mere technical ability, but by a masculine competitiveness -- what Lawrence called the "rat race" -- that drives (male) scientists to obsessive devotion to their work.  That Nobel Prize isn't going to win itself!

There's another aspect to this.  A wide range of scientific ability appears among men as well as among women, yet boys are encouraged to study science and girls aren't, even though most of them will not go on to pursue science as a career, let alone do top-ranking work.  There's no need to expect that every girl in a high-school or college science class will be a Marie Curie or a Lise Meitner, any more than every boy who attends summer basketball camp will be a Michael Jordan.  First, you can't tell in advance who will eventually stand out; second, you need a large population of non-specialists to appreciate and support the very best achievers.  Excellence will largely take care of itself; discouraging those who don't show excellence from day one is self-defeating if you want a culture of self-critical scientific rationalists, of both sexes.