Remember the explosive piece in Nature by Ben Barres? It's behind the paywall, but I have some excerpts here. I have another post with links to quite a few other things that emerged in the aftermath of Barres' piece.
In his article, Ben Barres, who was a woman named Barbara before he underwent sex change treatment in 1997, takes offence at the suggestion -- which he calls the "Larry Summers Hypothesis" -- that "differences in innate aptitude rather than discrimination were more likely to be to blame for the failure of women to advance in scientific careers". He says:
My main purpose in writing this commentary is that I would like female students to feel that they will have equal opportunity in their scientific careers. Until intolerance is addressed, women will continue to advance only slowly. Of course, this feeling is also deeply personal to me. The comments of Summers, Mansfield, Pinker and Lawrence about women's lesser innate abilities are all wrongful and personal attacks on my character and capabilities, as well as on my colleagues' and students' abilities and self esteem. I will certainly not sit around silently and endure them.
The latest issue of Nature has responses from two of those named in the quote: Steven Pinker and Peter Lawrence. Given what Barres says in the article, it's understandable that these two gentlemen would want to offer a defence of their views. I want to concentrate on Pinker's response. In Barres' article, Pinker appears in two other places in addition to the quote above:
Last year, Harvard University president Larry Summers suggested that differences in innate aptitude rather than discrimination were more likely to be to blame for the failure of women to advance in scientific careers. Harvard professor Steven Pinker then put forth a similar argument in an online debate.
Steven Pinker has responded to critics of the Larry Summers Hypothesis by suggesting that they are angry because they feel the idea that women are innately inferior is so dangerous that it is sinful even to think about it.
Crying foul, Pinker says in his response that his views have been misrepresented.
In my book The Blank Slate, ... and in a published debate, I reviewed a large empirical literature showing differences in mean and variance in the distributions of talents, temperaments and life priorities among men and women. Given these differences, some favouring men, some women, it is unlikely that the proportions of men and women in any profession would be identical, even without discrimination. That is probably one of several reasons that the sex ratio tips towards women in some scientific disciplines ... and towards men in others. Barres renders this conclusion as "a whole group of people is innately wired to fail" Â an egregious distortion.
Barres claims that I have denied that sex discrimination is a significant factor in professional life, whereas I have repeatedly stated the opposite... [bold emphasis added]
If you go back to the full article -- But, without a subscription, you can't! -- you won't find Pinker being linked to anything that he says Barres wrote about him. What you will find, instead, is the following, which comes close to Pinker's first complaint:
It is incumbent upon those proclaiming gender differences in abilities to rigorously address whether suspected differences are real before suggesting that a whole group of people is innately wired to fail. [bold emphasis added]
Similarly, the closest that I could come to Pinker's second complaint is where Barres says, "Despite these studies, very few men or women are willing to admit that discrimination is a serious problem in science."
Clearly, Pinker is upto some shady business here. Consider this. Barres says -- specifically, and in at least two places -- that Pinker belongs to the camp that regards innate differences as more important than discrimination in holding women back in science. Does Pinker dispute or refute that assertion? No!
Instead, what Pinker does is to de-link the two things. He first recaps research findings about gender differences, and then asserts that he never denied the significance of discrimination. For all we know, he may well be right on these two things, but Barres never claimed otherwise! In other words, Barres' claim is not about these two separate things, but about their relative importance in explaining gender imbalance in science. Thus, instead of addressing Barres' specific claim, Pinker chooses to address two separate things that Barres didn't say! Strawman, anyone?
Finally, Pinker ends his response on a snarky note:
... in my experience, students of both sexes are attracted to science because it promises an honest investigation into how the world works, an alternative to the subjectivity, simplistic dichotomies and moralistic name-calling that characterize politics and personal quarrels. Let's hope Barres's Commentary article does not discourage them. [bold emphasis added]
Coming from a leading academic, this is a mean, low attack, and he is wrong on everything he associates -- implicitly, mind you -- with Barres. Barres cites honest, objective studies to support his view that (a) innate gender differences are not all they're made out to be and (b) discrimination is quite rampant. His arguments are nuanced, and he is generous to his opponents when he says, "I'm certain that all the proponents of the Larry Summers Hypothesis are well-meaning and fair-minded people." He certainly doesn't get into 'name-calling' (for example, he doesn't call Pinker 'sexist' or a 'discriminator'). And finally, citing Pinker as an example of those with certain views is not a 'personal quarrel'. By linking these evidently bad things with Barres (through that last sentence), it's Pinker who's doing the mud-slinging.
Score so far: Barres-10, Pinker-0