Thursday, May 12, 2005

More Recommended Reading

Just so you don't think The Onion is all I read, I've also been working my way through my newly-arrived copies of Blink and Freakonomics, along with two borrowed books: Civil War Soldiers (I've been on a Civil War kick) and Johnny Cash's autobiography.

Also recommended reading: the almost-always-perfect's Pinker vs. Spelke debate on science and gender difference. It's a transcription (they also have audio and some video clips) of a debate at Harvard between hot-shit psychologists Steven Pinker and Elizabeth Spelke in the wake of the Larry Summers fiasco.

Some important highlights:

1) Pundits and third-rate commentry aside, the whole blowup about what Summers said at Harvard has very little to do with any kind of gigantomachia between die-hard natural-determinist scientists and ball-breaking blank-slate gender constructivists. It's all about Harvard's hiring practices, and Summers's BS apologies for them. Harvard hasn't been giving what appear to be remarkably qualified women its tenure-track jobs in natural sciences. And Summers suggested that one explanation for this might be that at the very high end of mathematical and scientific ability, there might be more men than women. And almost everyone else at Harvard cried "Horseshit!" I think it's fair to say that Summers's answer is a horseshit response to the question being posed -- it sidesteps the whole question of whether or not the female candidates have been qualified, or rather, assumes that they weren't, and tries to explain why -- without taking a stance one way or the other as to whether it's just plain old horseshit, period.

2) Pinker's argument for the existence of sexual differences between men and women at any age, and the relevance of those differences for both cognitive activity and career choice is very good. But Spelke's argument that those differences do not necessarily translate into a competitive advantage for men over women in the practice of science is even better.

In other words, yes, the most crucial aspects of human psychology are biological and "innate" (in whatever sense we're using that word this century), and yes, a fair number of those aspects are tied to sexual difference. But none of those will in themselves make you a better or worse physics professor -- you know, unless all Harvard physics professors do is play with toy trucks instead of dolls. Is that where all our money for cyclotrons and particle accelerators is going?

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