Department of Self-Fulfilling Prophecies, Women in Science Edition

Recently Ben Barres, a professor of neurobiology, gave a fascinating talk at Harvard titled “Some Reflections on the Dearth of Women in Science.” His talk was based on his Nature article “Does Gender Matter” (to achievement in the sciences). I found the talk an extraordinary confirmation of my earlier worries about self-fulfilling prophecies and bias in the blogosphere.

Barres was responding to Steven Pinker’s book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, which, according to Barres, argues that men are innately “more aggressive and ambitious” and women innately “feel emotions more strongly” and “prefer to take care of children.” Barres explored how Rosalyn Barnett and Carolyn Rivers’ book Same Difference: How Gender Myths are Hurting our Relationships, Our Children, and Our Jobs extensively undermined such ideas, exploring the numerous “nurture” based rationales for differences Pinker saw as innate. Barres recited several studies evidencing “gender prejudice” that influences choices from the very earliest stages of child development. His slide show (available here) also raised serious questions about Pinker’s neo-Darwinian agenda, tracing bias in it all the way back to Darwin’s 1871 Descent of Man, which argued that “The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shown by man’s attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman.” (In 1985, Richard Lewontin responded that “biological determinists have never found any credible concrete basis for such differences.”).

After punching various holes in Pinker’s scientific program, Barres concluded that “When faculty tell their students that they are innately inferior based on race or gender they are crossing a line that should not be crossed –the line that divides responsible free speech from verbal violence.” His comments bring to mind a struggle for the soul of academia–whether the university is defined by either a) a libertarian willingness to entertain *any* idea or b) a communitarian belief that academics are part of a larger process of social inquiry designed to improve the world. The former idea is a tempting for many, but when we try to recognize the range of research programs that are actually worthwhile to accomplish, we quickly see that such rules of recognition are themselves parasitic on situated concepts of what is important to us and what aspects of our tradition are most worth promoting. Barres points out that the mere act of setting an agenda of inquiry can itself not merely manifest, but also promote, the very biases the inquirer claims merely to be exploring.

Consider, for instance, an academic department set up to explore Pinker’s hypothesis that “Religion is a desperate measure that people resort to when the stakes are high and they have exhausted the usual techniques for the causation of success.” Or the question of whether academics should study the propriety of torture in the service of national security. We may all want to pat ourselves on the back for being brave enough to consider such inquires. (In the same manner as, say, Pinker appears to be proud to consider dangerous ideas.) Yet as Raimond Gaita has argued, sometimes an “open mind” can also be a (morally) empty one. Gaita argues that “Society is in fact defined by what is undiscussable.”

You may also like...