Harvard president Lawrence Summers sparked a nationwide debate this week when he asserted that innate gender differences between men and women could help explain the dearth of female scientists and engineers. Many have expressed outrage at his comments, claiming that he is reinforcing already-existent biases against women in the hard sciences. But is this anger justified?
As a bleeding-heart liberal, my initial impulse is to side with Summers’ opponents; his terrible record at Harvard on women’s and minority issues speaks to my reaction. Nevertheless, if we extract the message from the otherwise awful messenger, I believe that Summers’ desire for inquiry into the matter is completely valid. That doesn’t mean, however, that we should start looking into it.
Discrimination has a long and ugly history of using poor science to buttress itself (as in Hitler’s Germany). This does not, however, mean that meaningful science is incapable of helping us understand observed phenomena in the social world. Indeed, no one would argue that inherent differences between people do not exist. Why I haven’t already been drafted by the Knicks is in part due to the genetic limitations of my height. There is no reason to believe that intelligence does not also follow this pattern. Likewise, if my eyes are correct in telling me that there are average physical differences between men and women, then it does not seem impossible that there exist average intellectual differences as well.
These contentions, however reasonable they appear, are only conjectures. Thankfully, humans have devised a way to separate the theoretical wheat from the chaff: science! We are able to formulate methods that will lend evidence either for or against any assertion, including controversial ones. It is against the grain of science (as a medium for discovering truth) to leave an assertion uninvestigated, and the mention of a distasteful theory is no grounds for dismissal. The lack of congruence between Darwin and the Bible may be unsettling to some, but it is not a scientific reason to reject evolution.
Often different forms of the “difficulty” argument surface to run against such gender research. Some will say that it is impossible to distinguish between social biases and genetic differences. But this is no reason for science not to study genetic differences; it is precisely on this sort of apparent impossibility (for instance, on the apparent impossibility that people can’t fly) that science thrives. Others may posit that since the differences in intelligence within genders vary so widely, the overall average difference is most likely irrelevant. To that I reply that that’s a question more rightfully reserved to the careful statistician, who can declare nothing if no experiment has been done. Still others may state that intelligence is a many-faceted thing, and that it’s too difficult to quantify all of the intelligences useful for a field such as electrical engineering. And yet Yale looks at thousands of high school kids every year, attempting to sort through the mess of applicants and their mess of intelligences, and yet it always manage to select some and reject others. The fact that intelligence is complex and hard to quantify does not mean everyone is equally intelligent.
Scientifically, there appears to be nothing wrong with looking for innate differences between the sexes, and it seems entirely possible that we might even find some substantive variation. This is a very underdeveloped area in the sciences, and further studies may tell us something about the existence — or lack thereof — of actual differences between the genders. And yet it feels so wrong–
The reason why there is such a reaction against studying innate gender differences (and the reason why I personally tend to be against it) is moral in nature. Science is not a completely open exploration of the universe; society has seen it fit to put limitations on what science can do for the overall sake of humanity. For instance, I cannot deliberately infect someone with AIDS in the hopes of finding a cure, because society has judged that the moral cost would be too great. Likewise, the benefits of discovering innate differences between men and women (motivated to a large extent by scientific curiosity) are far outweighed by the risk of creating justifications for injustice. If an average substantive difference were demonstrated between the genders, this might be exploited by forces wishing to justify gender discrimination. The arguments against study of innate gender differences stand not on scientific reasons, but on moral limitations.
So was Larry Summers right? Probably not. But his critics aren’t, either.
Zachary Zwillinger is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College.