Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Gender debate in science: Barres - 10, Pinker - 0

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.

Given the controversy generated by Barres' original article, it's unfair on Nature's part to keep it behind its paywall while making the responses (including a nasty one by Steven Pinker) available to the public for free.

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" Ă‚— 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


  1. Anonymous said...

    I agree. Pinker seems to sensationalize his stance rather than provide lucid arguments.
    A very well written post by the way!

  2. Anonymous said...

    great post!

    although, i could read only the excerpts that you linked to, i must say the arguments against Barres dont make muh sense. particularly Lawrence's.


  3. Anonymous said...

    If you read the debate on Edge (link in Pinker's letter to Nature), Pinker spends his entire debate talking about biological differences between the sexes. The other particpant in the debate (Dr.Spelke) clearly says Pinker's position is that biological differences are more important than discrimination for "datum" under debate. Pinker never disputes that. So Pinker's position on the debate is reasonably clear.

    Also Pinker says clearly the he believes the differences favor men in some disciplines and women in others. He never states that the differences work against women in all the sciences. So Barres's characterisation of Pinker's position as blaming innate differences for women lagging behind in their science careers is wrong, intentional or otherwise. Pinker points this out in the letter.

    There isn't much evidence to suggest that Pinker is upto anything shady. Both Barres and Pinker take some liberties in their characterisation of what the other said or wrote.

    Also, as an academic you would have definitely come across more snarky and condescending letters than Pinker's. It isn't pretty when academics fight like school children, but it isn't such a rare thing.

  4. Anonymous said...

    very interesting post! i'd tend to agree with rajagopal - that the score is closer than you have it - but thanks a lot for this post either way!

  5. Abi said...

    Perspective, Inc., Angry Fix, Rajagopal, TR: Thanks for your comments.

    Rajagopal: I disagree with your statement that "both Barres and Pinker take some liberties in their characterisation of what the other said or wrote. " Pinker's views are well known, and you have summarized them well: "Pinker's position is that biological differences are more important than discrimination for "datum" under debate. Pinker never disputes that."

    I noted in the post that Barres he has said essentially what you have said -- not just once, but in two different places! Now, where has Barres mischaracterized Pinker's views?

    Ugly academic sparring may not be rare, but it's important to call it ugly everytime it happens. Pinker's response -- particularly the last paragraph -- is certainly ugly.

  6. Anonymous said...

    The Economist takes a detailed look at the current scientific understanding of gender differences and says "Men and women think differently. But not that differently."

  7. Abi said...

    Thanks, Satya, for that link. I posted that link just two posts ago.