The Use and Misuse of Social Science (herein of “verbal violence”)
In his most recent post, Frank links to his approving reference to Ben Barres’s claim that “When faculty tell their students that they are innately inferior based on . . . gender they are crossing a line that should not be crossed –the line that divides responsible free speech from verbal violence.” So does my last post, suggesting greater variability in results on math tests based on gender amount to such a claim? Are those who say such things asserting that women are inherently inferior at mathematics?
No. I don’t think so.
From what I gather there is a fair amount of evidence that if you take a sufficiently large group of men and a sufficiently large group of women, their mean mathematical performance will be about equal. This does not mean, of course, that every individual’s ability will be equal. Some will be good at math and some will be bad at math. Indeed, there is no particular reason that any member of either group actually performs at the mean that we ascribe to “men” or “women.” An average is by definition a mathematical property of a set not of an individual.
My understanding – based on the Science study touted by the NYT – is that at the extremes there are more males than females. This does not mean that all the geniuses and all the dunces are males. It does not mean that the smartest male is smarter than the smartest female or vice versa. Ditto for the bottom of the distribution.
“Ah,” one might object, “you are still claiming that men are more likely to be math geniuses than women! This is precisely the kind of ‘verbal violence’ that Barres was warning against!”
Um, not really. It is true that if faced with an individual about whom I knew absolutely nothing except his or her gender, I might hazard a guess that there is a slightly higher probability of their being a mathematical genius or a dunce if they are male. A very, very slight probability. On the other hand, I would hasten to add that gender is unlikely to be the best predictor of math ability, and if I really wanted to make some sort of claim about ability I would want to look at a bunch of factors other than gender that are likely to give me more information.
Indeed, if I was faced with an individual the best way of determining their mathematical aptitude would not be to observe their gender. It would be to observe their mathematical performance. Any person – male or female – might be a genius or might be a dunce. Chances are they are someplace in the middle. Regardless, the best thing to do is to observe their actual ability. In short, when making individual assessments, the claims that we make about large populations are largely beside the point.
Then why even pursue such inquiries? Aren’t we just playing with fire, giving ammunition to reactionary forces that lack my (admittedly pathetic) mathematical nuance?
The short answer is that when we are thinking about the best intellectual, policy, emotional, and moral response to social facts – like the male dominance of engineering faculties, for example – social data is useful. Notice, this is not the same thing as claiming that men are inherently better at math than women, nor does it amount to the claim that there is some biological determinism at work in the variability. I am frankly agnostic on the question of etiology. Nature v. nurture; who knows? Not me. I suspect the answer is both, but that is a gut instinct not a reasoned position. It is also not the same thing as claiming that the variation in performance among men entirely explains social facts like the engineering faculty. I doubt it. I certainly haven’t seen evidence that it works as a solo cause. On the other hand, I doubt that it is irrelevant.
All of this means that as a functional matter, I tend toward the libertarian end of the spectrum when it comes to academic freedom. As a philosophical matter, I agree with Frank that ultimately what counts as a worthwhile inquiry and what is a pernicious waste of time (and I do think that there are things that are a pernicious waste of time) has reference to our current social condition and our moral judgments. That said, however, in practice I think that we ought to be suspicious about attacks on this or that research agenda as “verbal violence.”