Jun 8, 2010

Larry's law

John Tierney at New York Times published a piece "Daring to Discuss Women in Science", where he recites some old and boring arguments about gender bias and argues that there is no evidence of gender bias, only the evidence of sex differences in cognitive abilities. As with any other issues, everybody can have their own opinion. But this piece not only creates a problem out of nothing, it also masks the author's opinion by appealing to evidence and statistics.

The problem, according to the author, is that the House of Representatives passed a law ("Larry's Law") that would require poor science guys to go to some weird workshops where, as the author worries, they won't be allowed to talk about "the new evidence supporting Dr. Summers’s controversial hypothesis about differences in the sexes’ aptitude for math and science". Is that what the law is about? Mr. Tierney says that the official title of this legislation is "Fullfilling the potential of women in academic science and engineering" as if the whole legislation is about those poor guys and workshops.

In fact, the legislation is titled "To invest in innovation through research and development, to improve the competitiveness of the United States, and for other purposes". The short title is "America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010". The document consists of 248 pages and tens of sections. It's about policies regarding the national nanotechnology initiative, NSF, various STEM initiatives, etc. The section "Fulfilling..." that John Tierney is so concerned about is in "Other provisions" and takes a few pages. It is primarily about overcoming gender bias among the researchers who receive federal funding by organizing workshops, doing surveys, etc. So what?

I can see a lot of arguments against such workshops. And I think it's pathetic that gender equity in science and technology is thought to be achieved by such means. I even understand those who challenge such equity altogether (not in terms of abilities, but in terms of this being a positive social arrangement). However, Tierney's piece is not about any of this. As I said before, it uses a small part of a larger legislation concerned with a whole lot of other issues to reiterate once again that sex differences in cognitive abilities exist. What's new and worthy of expressing an opinion in NYT?

Putting aside considerations about the quality of social science research and statistics (pre-existing biases built into the instrument, indicators that do not measure what they're supposed to measure, correlation is not causation, etc., etc.), the author of this article fails to see that the point is not in whether gender differences or biases exist. The point is in how we deal with them. Kind of old news too.