Sunday, January 23, 2005


Prejudice Masked as "Science"

The New York Times editorial section hosts two opinion pieces on gender discrimination between Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute and Olivia Judson, an evolutionary biologist.

Short Charles Murray: There are genetic differences between men and women, "scientific" studies show men and women develop differently, therefore it is wrong-headed to object when people claim evidence shows these differences are caused in whole or in part by genetic factors. Typical quote:
Some people will find the results threatening - because some people find any group differences threatening - but such fears will be misplaced. We may find that innate differences give men, as a group, an edge over women, as a group, in producing, say, terrific mathematicians. But knowing that fact about the group difference will not change another fact: that some women are terrific mathematicians. The proportions of men and women mathematicians may never be equal, but who cares? What's important is that all women with the potential to become terrific mathematicians have full opportunity to do so.
Short Olivia Judson: Everyone knows we fear finding out whether women really are genetically inferior to men in scientific ability - but you can't completely ignore the effect of prejudice. Typical quote:
The science of sex differences, even in fruit flies and toads, is a ferociously complex subject. It's also famously fraught, given its malignant history. In fact, there was a time not so long ago when I would have balked at the whole enterprise: the idea there might be intrinsic cognitive differences between men and women was one I found insulting. But science is a great persuader. The jackdaws and spoon worms have forced me to change my mind. Now I'm keen to know what sets men and women apart - and no longer afraid of what we may find.
Buried in Olivia Judson's article is the real reason many people find these comments objectionable - that pseudo-scientific "evidence" so often masks baseless prejudice:
...Women were thought not to be world-class musicians. But when American symphony orchestras introduced blind auditions in the 1970's - the musician plays behind a screen so that his or her gender is invisible to those listening - the number of women offered jobs in professional orchestras increased.

Similarly, in science, studies of the ways that grant applications are evaluated have shown that women are more likely to get financing when those reading the applications do not know the sex of the applicant. In other words, there's still plenty of work to do to level the playing field; there's no reason to suppose there's something inevitable about the status quo.
(Emphasis added.)

What Frank Summers, Charles Murray and Olivia Johnson all ignore is that there have been no meaningful studies measuring the precise effect of one's genetic makeup on one's environment, rendering valid conclusions in the area impossible. We KNOW prejudice affects the environment each of us face. We KNOW that people's genetic makeup affects one's appeearance, and thus the types of prejudices we each face. Because one's genetic background affects one's environment, and one cannot ethically run studies on humans by, say, performing sex-change operations in infants to measure the affect of appearance (phenotype) versus genetic makeup (genotype) on those infants' abilities, it is not ethically possible to generate scientific evidence as to whether perceived differences in abilities are caused by one's genotype or one's phenotype. (Note that this works both ways: studies showing women score higher in certain areas when the evaluators don't know the competitor's phenotype proves environment plays a significant role in such decisions, it does NOT prove genetics plays NO role.)

Until someone runs rigorously designed studies varying the phenotype of a uniform human genotype, it simply is not possible to validly determine the extent one's abilities are based on one's genome versus one's phenome. All the "Bell-Curve" type studies claiming to prove genetic explanations for such differences are thus inherently flawed and meaningless. Harvard's President Summers' assertion of scientific evidence "indicating" women's genetics may affect their underrepresentation in science faculties shows a basic lack of statistical knowlege - for which he should be condemned.


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