Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Larry Summers's Comment

This is a bit dated now, but I have to come down on the side of those who walked out and protested the comments by Larry Summer concerning genetic factors in the number of women in the sciences.

The first thing to understand is that the debate, at least as it is carried out in the popular press, is very confused. The way that genetic and environmental influences are discussed clouds the issue and makes for a great deal of silly commentary. People are often talking about characteristics and whether or not they are determined by environment or genes. This is a very misleading way to think about the role of genes and environment on the ultimate characteristics of an organism. Essentially every characteristic of an organism is, in some way, controlled by genes. However, some characteristics are highly sensitive to environment, others are not. For example, blood type is certainly determined by certain genes. There is, as far as I'm aware, no environmental influence that will change blood type at all. Blood type is extremely insensitive to environment. On the other hand, characteristics such as adult height or quality of vision are certainly determined by genes, but they are also extremely sensitive to environment. The typical nature vs. nurture distinction, unfortunately suggests that if you can identify a clear genetic component that there is therefore no significant environmental influence. This is just not the way that the universe we actually live in works.

So to bring this to relate to Larry Summers's comments, there is no doubt some genetic components, that might well we sex related to how one will perform as a scientist. But the important question then is, how sensitive to the environment are these factors. Now we already know that there is a great deal of sensitivity to some environmental factors. Having no graduate programs that will consider admitting a woman is an environmental factor which it has been well demonstrated will reduce the number of women scientists. But the question still remains as to how much of the difference today in the number of women and men in science is due to factors that are sensitive and insensitive to the environment.

Now to demonstrate the proposal that a given characteristic is insensitive to the environment is to try and demonstrate a universal negative. As far as I know, someone might well find a compound which if added to a mother's diet will change the blood type of a fetus. I doubt it, but I can't prove that no such thing can happen. The problem of the universal negative. For this reason, scientists will sensible investigate the proposal that a given characteristic is sensitive to the environment. This, it seems to me, was the goal of the conferees to whom Dr. Summers made his comments. Given what we know of sexism, women in the sciences in this century, etc. it seems to me to make a great deal of sense to continue to investigate the possibility that there remains some considerable environmental impact on the discrepancy between the number of men and women in science. Furthermore, if the discrepancy is sensitive to environmental influences, there is a great deal of social benefit to modifying environments so as to reduce the current imbalance. The social benefits flow not just to women who could have successful careers in science but are diverted away, or to those who are forced to put unnecessary effort into overcoming environmental obstacles. In addition, the process of science depends critically upon having a diverse group of independent critics to review scientific developments. The diversity of the group is necessary to insure that as many errors as possible can be caught in any given scientific proposal. To unnecessarily exclude a substantial number of individuals with potentially novel outlooks on scientific issues can be expected to impede scientific advances. So it is certainly sensible to investigate the potential existence of environmental factors influencing the disparity between numbers of men and women in science, which the conferees, by all accounts were in the process of doing.

But if what I've said so far is correct, Larry Summers's comment was at best of no value at all, and at worst intellectually vacuous and deeply insulting. Certainly there may well be genetic factors, but the only meaningful question is 'are there environmental factors'. The only sensible approach is to ask if there are environmental factors and search for them. Larry Summers's comment served to say no more than, maybe you shouldn't bother to look. No matter what genetic factors may be shown to shape performance as a scientist, the important question still is 'are these factors like blood type or are they like adult height or eye sight?'.

Larry Summers's comment strikes me as being very much like the ID movement, and intellectually vacuous for the same reason. In that case, there is considerable evidence that all species are linked by ties of common ancestry and the scientific community is sensibly searching for possible evolutionary mechanisms that link the different lineages and continuing to do so, so long as research continues to reveal promising lines of investigation. The ID movement is providing no new lines of investigation, it is simply trying to say stop looking, give up. Larry Summers's was doing the same thing, and given the potential social costs of the current arrangement, to advocate surrender is both an intellectual failure and insult.

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