Finally I get to use the “sex” category!

Steven Pinker and Elizabeth Spelke debating the issue of the day at Harvard, probably the only issue of any importance in the world, as Pinker implies, if your view of the universe begins and ends in Harvard Yard. It seems to me that Pinker has the better case, since, as he points out, Spelke’s evidence is largely about general mundane mental activity, not the sort of highly specialized and possibly male-favorable kind of work that is specific to university-level scientists. However, there is really nothing the least bit conclusive about any of it, and I am inclined to side with Pinker only because his claim is the more modest and intuitive one. In other words, I can’t understand how any of these very tentative hypotheses are being taken as having immediate implications on public policy, and not just within the university. After all, what do Pinker and Spelke disagree on at the practical level? He calls himself a feminist, with her it pretty much goes without saying. They both no doubt wish to end discrimination, and hopefully not only against women, and make scientific merit the criterion in hiring and admissions.

But I imagine that this assumption of immediate applicability comes about precisely because at least one faction, probably the one to which Pres. Summers was addressing his comments in the first place, has taken an absolutist and extremely over-deterministic attitude, predicated on the view that not only are there no differences in cognitive ability between the sexes (which are obviously just social constructs anyway), and not only is a rigid 50-50 parity in employment desirable, but a failure to attain this goal is itself prima facie evidence of discrimination. In the way of opposing this notion it perhaps behooves me to criticize the whole notion of using statistical blocks as specific social goals in this way, since the practice transcends this particular issue. My hometown, for example, has apparently decided to institute a monthly harvest–sorry, I mean quota–of DUI arrests.

In this case the folly of such quotas is perhaps more evident. For example, suppose hypothetically that there simply are not as many drunk drivers to be accosted as are called for in the quota (hardly an absurd possibility, since it simply takes a couple of over-zealous bureaucrats inflating statistics and/or possibility). Logically, some non-drunk drivers would have to be arbitrarily arrested to fulfill the quota. If the officers had consciences they probably wouldn’t do it, but the very issue proves the cleft between the actual goal (hopefully), which is apprehending criminals and reducing crime, and the artificial authoritarian goal, which is attaining a monthly haul of arrests. In academia I don’t think it is any more ludicrous to presume that, even should men and women be fundamentally “equal” in scientific ability, in any given year there will surely almost never be an exactly equal number of qualified candidates from both genders. This is usually not a problem, since statistics are simply meant to more or less reflect reality, not prescribe it. But as any quantum physicist will tell you, the statistical fuzziness is never as precise as we would desire it, and if the point gets pushed it will result in some less-qualified candidates being hired. I would go further and assert that while incidental discrimination may be a result of the present system, a quota system is virtually the only way to institutionally mandate it.

Why should this be the case? Well, why don’t scientists write up their conclusions before performing the experiments? Assuming an outcome in advance, no matter what it is, betrays a fundamental inflexibility to reality. Even if police set a quota of arrests which decreases every year, they really can’t guarantee a commensurate decrease in crime. The reason that fuzziness is built into statistical analysis is because there is an implicit assumption that it is only an approximation, that reality can always exceed or disappoint expectations, etc. So if one wishes to remain “within the conditions of life,” as Flaubert would say, then one must, like a scientist, focus on the methodology, but not presume the outcome. So perhaps if there is a reason scientists are rushing to try to resolve an issue that they know well (and say so on several occaisons in the transcript) cannot be decided with any competent degree of certainty at the present, it is probably in response to those that made up their minds at the very outset.

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