Ben Barres vs Larry Summers

July 19, 2006 at 9:31 am | Posted in Women in Science | 6 Comments

Last week my advisor forwarded to the lab an article from the Washington Post and the Nature commentary (subscription required) it was discussing. The Nature article is written by Ben Barres, formerly Barbara Barres, about discrimination against women and minorities in science. His arguments are uniquely illustrated by his comparison of his experiences in science during the last 9 years as a man with those prior to that as a woman. He particularly attacks Larry Summers, Steven Pinker and Peter Lawrence for their opinion that the lack of women at the highest levels of science is due to innate differences between men and women.

As I read the Washington Post article, I quickly became frustrated with the arguments put forward by Pinker and Lawrence (Summers declined to comment), because they seemed to be ignoring the issues raised by Barres. For some reason, I initially tried to diminish my anger and convince myself that they were just trying to present actual data, rather than anecdotes.

The problem is, the data they present is nothing to do with discrimination. I’m willing to believe that their research shows differences in performance of various types of tasks between men and women. I’m not willing to believe that those differences are all due to innate ability, however. Not when there are other explanations that seem to be better supported. Why don’t they answer the charge of bias against women and minorities with data from studies that measure the prevalence of discrimination? Maybe they’re not interested in that field of research, which is fair enough. But, they should be aware of the limitations of their results, and leave discrimination out of it altogether, rather than claiming their results show it doesn’t exist.

I didn’t have a blog last year, so I’m going to rant about Larry Summers now. After he made his comments and the media started carrying on about the “hysterical” outrage by women, I heard a number of people say that “really, if you look at the transcript, what he said wasn’t that bad”. I read the transcript prepared to be placated, but instead became even more outraged, not only at Summers, but also the people I’d spoken to. How could they think it was “not that bad”? In my opinion, any quote taken out of context actually sounds less inflammatory to me than the whole. It’s the underlying disbelief that there’s anything wrong with the current representation of women and minorities in science that is so offensive.

This part of the WaPo article made me laugh: “Pinker said both he and Summers relied on “a large empirical literature”.” His key pieces of evidence were anecdotes about his own daughters, a former colleague of his and his recent visit to a kibbutz in Israel! Plus his calculation of how many more men than women there are 3.5-4 standard deviations above the mean: “I did a very crude calculation, which I’m sure was wrong and certainly was unsubtle, twenty different ways.” He cites one book that gives a skewed sex ratio at the high end of 12th grade maths/science scores and then admits that the tests used might not accurately measure ability. He still assumes a less-flawed test would give the same result, however.

For more insightful commentary see Zuska, Dr Free-Ride, Propter Doc, SciMom and MissPrism

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