Truth, Justice, and the Academic Way
I was responding to John’s comment, but the response outgrew the scope of the comment box. I’ve got some general pronouncements to pronounce. So, first, a quote for context:
Getting to the truth is the goal, though, so if this incites more incisive investigation, maybe it’s worthwhile.
The goal here is not truth. The goal is justice, of which truth is a necessary but not sufficient component.
Biology doesn’t produce injustice. Biology is occasionally unfair, but justice is a human concept that really only applies to human actions (and maybe the actions of anthropomorphized natural forces, if you’re into that sort of thing). Therefore, if we seek justice, we are by definition more concerned with sociology than biology.
I think we have enough evidence for the reality of sexist discrimination so that discussions of spicy gendered brains, while interesting, are not crucial to political advocacy. I think the way forward is to discuss the evidence we have for sexist discrimination, and work on social and political solutions (which may or may not bring us all the way to 50/50 gender ratio). Sex differences in the brain can take care of themselves, ending sexism will not eradicate them.
A scientific conversation about sex differences is (ideally) neutral, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to have a neutral scientific conversation in the midst of a heated political argument. I don’t see many neutral conversations on gendered brains; I see people* taking a perfectly good conversation about sexism, and transforming it into a conversation about sex differences, and that is not a neutral act. At the very least, it says “I don’t think your conversation about sexism is as important as my ideas about our spicy gendered brains” or “I am too stupid to recognize that a claim about the existence of discrimination is not a claim about the nonexistence of biology”; sometimes it says “stop talking about sexism, it’s all because of neurology, we do not need to seek social or political change”. Always it contains an implicit claim about the merits (and the lack thereof) of the pre-hijack discussion.
We can argue about whether any particular individuals have actually hijacked a conversation like this. Larry Summers certainly has, and so have lots of Internet trolls. I think the reason people who claim that there are meaningful gender-spicy-brain differences get such strong reactions is because their claims are seen, rightly or wrongly, as part of a larger argument about gender equity in the sciences. Viewed in such a context, claims that “men and women are different” automatically imply the claim that sexist discrimination is not worth talking about. I think this implication is often valid.
Moreover, if you keep in mind that one’s aptitude at science includes a package of seemingly irrelevant traits that help one succeed at the career parts of science, and not just the research, I think it’s fair to go from “sex differences make women do better in some fields than others” to “women are inept at the subjects they are underrepresented in”. But my defense of a bitchy reading of the spicy-gendered-brainists will have to wait, ’cause right now, it’s bedtime.