Monday, February 07, 2005

If Women Are Underrepresented on Science Faculties Due to "Innate Differences," What About Conservatives?

For those of you who wondered how my sister, the incoming Chair of the Department of Physics at the University of Wisconsin, felt about the whole Larry Summers brouhaha, her response was that it was just too depressing to think about. So I hope this response to the blame-the-victim meme helps a bit. The Stossel column, in which he posits that because male infants react to a puff of breath on their bellies differently than female infants, maybe THAT explains why there are so few women at the top levels in science, is here. My column, as it appears in the actual dead-tree version, is here. It's not the greatest headline, but it's a tough column to capture in 7 words. Once again, Harvard hates America (at least the Y-chromosome portion).

East Valley Tribune, Feb. 6, 2005

This newspaper’s latest right-wing media-elite pretty boy, John Stossel, joined Harvard’s President Lawrence Summers in suggesting that one reason why so many fewer women attain top positions in science might be innate differences between men and women.

Now, John Stossel probably isn’t the best authority on things scientific. As Kevin Drum reminds us, in 2000, Stossel, who calls environmentalists “scaremongers,” wanted to air a story fitting his ideological agenda: That organic produce was a fraud and no better (and probably worse) than regular. However, a scientist hired by Stossel for the story, Dr. Lester Crawford of Georgetown University, didn’t actually test produce for pesticide; instead, he tested conventional and organic chickens. His tests showed pesticide residue on conventional chickens, but not on organics.

However, Stossel ignored the actual chicken results, and claimed on air that his tests proved that ordinary produce had no more pesticide residues than organic produce. Environmental groups wrote ABC, reporting that Dr. Crawford himself said Stossel got the story wrong, but Stossel and ABC stonewalled for months; the story aired a second time.

Months later, ABC finally investigated, and found that the critics were right; no such tests existed, and the story was wrong. (Think Dan Rather, but with vegetables instead of documents.) Stossel apologized, insisting that the story was basically correct, and not evidence of bias, but merely “honest confusion” over test results. Like the song goes, you say tomato, I say chicken.

But the guy who relied on nonexistent tests is now lecturing us about science and scholarship, about the need “to ask questions and open our eyes to facts.” Citing studies that male infants startle more readily than females, or that women are more likely to recall items in a cluttered room but less likely to recall directions when blindfolded, Stossel opined that research into gender differences could be useful in explaining the underrepresentation of women in math and science.

Of course, it’s not clear how the ability to be startled as an infant, or to recall directions when blindfolded, might actually relate to aptitude in science and math. And in reaching for evidence any possible gender differences, Stossel managed to ignore the actual studies of socialization factors, which even researchers of brain structure consider far more important.

There actually exists considerable research on socialization issues in science, but you’d never know it from Stossel’s ideologically-driven “plea” for knowledge. One study asked men and women to rate academic papers on a five-point scale. The men rated papers by “John T. McKay” a full point higher than the same work attributed to “Joan T. McKay.” Women also rated the “male” papers more highly, but just by not as much as the men.

Other studies of grant application processes show that women are more likely to win funding when those reading the applications do not know whether the applicant is male or female. And Professors Cecilia Rouse of Princeton and Claudia Goldin of Harvard, in a study published in the American Economic Review, showed that women have a 50 percent better chance of advancing beyond the preliminary rounds in a “blind” symphony orchestra audition, where the player sits behind a screen and the judges cannot see his (or her) identity or gender.

But take Stossel at his word, that he sincerely cares about advancing abstract scientific knowledge, to learn if the woeful representation of a particular group among our best university’s teachers and researchers might be caused by innate differences.

But don’t research just gender differences; that wouldn’t be gallant. Let’s also study the alleged underrepresentation of (gasp!) conservatives on university faculties. If we don’t see the “right” number of right-wing university professors, shouldn’t we examine the possibility that conservatives just aren’t innately fit for work at the top of academia? I’m not saying it’s the reason, and I certainly hope that it isn’t, and maybe social, economic, or cultural reasons matter far more, but doesn’t “Science” require we consider that perhaps ‘wingers just aren’t inherently cut out to cut the intellectual mustard?

Don’t get angry; I’m merely “suggesting an academic inquiry into a question of science.” So hey, John Stossel: Give me a break!

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