Multiplication and division.
I've had a couple of conversations this week about the comments Lawrence Summers made some months ago about women and science. The more I talked about it, the more I realized that what bothered me most about the situation wasn't Summers's comments. It was the widespread reaction to them.
So this guy may or may not be a bigot. But given that 1. we know that more men than women have successful careers in math and science and 2. we know that there are real differences between men's and women's brains, it doesn't strike me as totally crazy to suggest that responsible science ought to at least consider neurology when looking for explanations of sociological inequity. I say this as a woman good at both math and science, and as someone aware that there really are significant biases at all levels of math and science education whereby female students have a harder time getting the same attention from teachers than their male counterparts typically command. And those biases need to be addressed, and I don't know how to address them other than by making educators aware of them.
Maybe the fact that more men than women are successful in math and science careers is all sociological. Except... what if it isn't? What if the differences between men's and women's brains account for at least some of the career and activity preferences exhibited by the two sexes?
I don't know the answer, but it seems scientifically irresponsible not to at least consider it.
Except that, in the end, maybe it's sociologically irresponsible to consider it.
On the one hand I'd rather see the president of the world's foremost university advocate for open scientific inquiry that is not slave to political expedience. On the other hand, let's say we discover that yes, on the whole, boys are more inclined to be good at or enjoy math than girls are. What does that really buy us? Does it just buy us a justification for our local fourth grade teacher's tendency, or our graduate professor's tendency, to devote more energy to her male students than she does to her female students? Because if that's the case, that's a disaster.
Whatever the case, reasonable people will evaluate students or job candidates on the merits of their own accomplishments and talents as individuals rather than as members of some group ostensibly predisposed one way or another. That's true now and it's always been true. The problem arises because no one is perfectly reasonable.
I'm interested in what other people have to say about this. I'm frustrated by most of what I've read about it because it seems to miss the point. The point isn't that it was sexist of him to suggest that men might be better than women at math. It's not crazy for the president of a major university to suggest that neurobiological explanations might be worth considering as a partial explanation. The bigger question is what answer might satisfy us. Do we want to learn that yes, there is some neurological basis for the social patterns we see? Boys really are better at math on the whole, and that's why women are underrepresented in the sciences? Or would we rather learn that the differences between men's and women's brains have absolutely nothing to do with the troublesome pattern of underrepresentation, and that we, in 2005, can't seem to get the sociological biases under control that might ultimately rectify the inequity?
What are we looking to hear?