THE SUMMERS OF DISCONTENT

Unable to secure an adequate supply of fanciful femifacist fulminations from Australia’s female man-haters, Fairfax’s Daily Life imports nonsense:

Why do so few women end up in physics, mathematics and other fields traditionally associated with “brilliance”? Part of the answer may lie in what happens to girls by the time they’re out of kindergarten.

A new study finds that 6-year-old girls are less likely than boys to think members of their own gender can be brilliant – and they’re more likely than boys to shy away from activities requiring that exceptional intelligence. That’s a serious change from their attitudes at age 5, when they’re just as likely as boys to think their own gender can be brilliant, and just as willing to take on those activities for brilliant children.

A reflection of reality, perhaps?

The stereotype that men are better at math and science is a pervasive one, difficult to dislodge even at the top echelons of higher education. In 2005, Harvard President Lawrence Summers stirred up controversy during a speech in which he said that women were under represented in the sciences in part because of “issues of intrinsic aptitude.

Reducing a 4,319 word talk to four words is a bit iffy – beware the truncated quote. Summers was intentionally provocative, making this clear from the start of his talk:

I asked Richard, when he invited me to come here and speak, whether he wanted an institutional talk about Harvard’s policies toward diversity or whether he wanted some questions asked and some attempts at provocation, because I was willing to do the second and didn’t feel like doing the first. And so we have agreed that I am speaking unofficially and not using this as an occasion to lay out the many things we’re doing at Harvard to promote the crucial objective of diversity. There are many aspects of the problems you’re discussing and it seems to me they’re all very important from a national point of view. I’m going to confine myself to addressing one portion of the problem, or of the challenge we’re discussing, which is the issue of women’s representation in tenured positions in science and engineering at top universities and research institutions, not because that’s necessarily the most important problem or the most interesting problem, but because it’s the only one of these problems that I’ve made an effort to think in a very serious way about.  The other prefatory comment that I would make is that I am going to, until most of the way through, attempt to adopt an entirely positive, rather than normative approach, and just try to think about and offer some hypotheses as to why we observe what we observe without seeing this through the kind of judgmental tendency that inevitably is connected with all our common goals of equality. It is after all not the case that the role of women in science is the only example of a group that is significantly underrepresented in an important activity and whose underrepresentation contributes to a shortage of role models for others who are considering being in that group. To take a set of diverse examples, the data will, I am confident, reveal that Catholics are substantially underrepresented in investment banking, which is an enormously high-paying profession in our society; that white men are very substantially underrepresented in the National Basketball Association; and that Jews are very substantially underrepresented in farming and in agriculture. These are all phenomena in which one observes underrepresentation, and I think it’s important to try to think systematically and clinically about the reasons for underrepresentation. 

Summers is correct in that the male population exhibits greater intelligence variability than does the female population, so a greater percentage of males will fall into both the “idiot” and “genius” categories. Thus he is correct that there are more males at the top level of STEM.

Many people in the genius category exhibit symptoms of autism spectrum disorder, a condition affecting far more males than females:

Sexually dimorphic disease prevalence is well recognized, but poorly understood. For example, many disorders with autoimmune etiologies, such as multiple sclerosis and systemic lupus erythematosis, are female predominant, whereas some neurodevelopmental disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and language impairment show a male bias. Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are prototypical in this regard, as they show a striking male bias in prevalence, with approximately 4 affected males for every 1 affected female. The consistency of this observation across time and populations strongly implicates the involvement of sex-specific biological factors in ASD etiology. 

Males are also overrepresented amongst savants – formerly idiot savants, think Rainman – by six to one, so it’s unlikely we’ll ever see a Rainwoman.

Regardless, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, a man of superior intelligence,  immediately leapt to Summers’ defence.

By the early ’70s, women in science were no longer an oddity or a joke but a given. Today, in my own field, the study of language development in children, a majority of the scientists are women. Even in scientific fields with a higher proportion of men, the contributions of women are so indispensable that any talk of turning back the clock would be morally heinous and scientifically ruinous.

Yet to hear the reaction to Harvard President Lawrence Summers’s remarks at a conference on gender imbalances in science, in which he raised the possibility of innate sex differences, one might guess that he had proposed exactly that. Nancy Hopkins, the eminent MIT biologist and advocate for women in science, stormed out of the room to avoid, she said, passing out from shock. An engineering dean called his remarks “an intellectual tsunami,” and, with equal tastelessness, a Boston Globe columnist compared him to people who utter racial epithets or wear swastikas. Alumnae threatened to withhold donations, and the National Organization of Women called for his resignation. Summers was raked in a letter signed by more than 100 Harvard faculty members and shamed into issuing serial apologies.

The kick-back and relax Youtube of Pinker’s defence is immediately below.

 

 

4 thoughts on “THE SUMMERS OF DISCONTENT

  1. You and your readers may find it interesting to research the work of the English psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen. He has postulated that autism is an “extreme form of the male brain”. He has developed screening test [Autism Quotient Test] and two tests [Empathising and Systemising] which are of interest in comparing traits of autistics versus neuro-typicals. I am autistic and, as is to be expected, my Systemising score was 63 while my Empathising score was 4. Both my [equally autistic] brother and I are especially good at analysing patterns. He is an excellent self-taught computer programmer and I am a behaviour management specialist: I see patterns in human behaviour that neuro-typicals cannot or will not see because they see [or perceive] social-emotional meaning whereas I see actions in a pure behavioural sense. Out father had significant autistic traits [but was not autistic per se] and was an exceptionally gifted mathematician. His father was a surveyor. A nephew [father’s grandson] is an engineer with similar analytical traits and is likely autistic also.

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    1. Some companies do recruit autistics as fact-checkers/proof readers because for us there is safety in the structure of pure and correct information and language in the tiniest detail. [That’s why I get upset when I fail to note a typographical error in my posts – see above – as I define myself by what I do and if what I do is not correct, then I am not correct.] Our inherent obsession about and need for complete and predictable structure is about giving ourselves “anchor-points”, even “life-rafts” in the sea of emotional chaos that we perceive to exist in the mainstream social world. Lacking the process of empathy we cannot accurately/intuitively read the social-emotional meanings of interactions with and between others and that can be very dangerous, e.g. “Yes Julia, to answer your question, your bum does look big in that dress. You should lose some weight!” Of course I have learned [painfully at times] that some questions can have answers that defy logic. I get some of it right; not a lot in complex settings with people I have just met whose rules I have yet to learn. [I have to “learn” each new person I meet.]

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