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.


  1. skookumchick wrote:

    I’ve been lurking on your blog for a while, and am delurking long enough to say – interesting post (although I’m a little confused). And I’m looking forward to the one. Do you think the argument (I think it was Joan Scott’s) that having the idea of equality necessitates difference because if they (whatever “it” is) weren’t different, they would be identical could help or hurt this discussion? I’m also confused by your italicised sentence – why does this imply that? and doesn’t your last para contradict the rest of the post?

  2. John Vidale wrote:

    You’re quite right taking issue with my quote. As a scientist, I only want to learn the facts, and frankly I am just as unqualified to adminster justice as I am to do most other non-science challenges. Justice is the more important issue, although ideally it should be based on facts. However we can’t let problems fester just because all the facts are not in.

    If I read you right, you’re saying raising the issue of sex differences derails conversations about gender inequity to the degree progress is impossible or worse. I’d argue an examination of the problem without all the factors on the table may have trouble getting the facts straight.

    Against, maybe you’re right from practical point of view, although I’m sure I’m right from the point of view of how objective people should behave to be effective.

  3. kerrick wrote:

    Well, you know me; I’m a heretic. But I disbelieve that science as practiced by scientists (people, again) is neutral or objective or free of social and political construction.

  4. John Vidale wrote:


    it’s definitely a battle to keep politics out of science.

    My field, earthquakes, isn’t so hard because of the inability of men to interfere, although people with an agenda did thoroughly mess up the science of seismic test ban treaty verification for a while. The more people who can’t tell the mean from the variance (I mean Barres) get involved, the less likely we are to get a correct answer.

  5. yami wrote:

    That’s what I get for writing late at night, stuff comes out a little confused. As for what’s in italics: if you read the ongoing discourse as primarily a conversation about sexist discrimination, then jumping in with “but spicy brains!” is a derailment, and derailments contain implicit statements about the worth of the derailed conversation. They’re in the “but” and the “!”, though, not the “spicy brains”.

    My last paragraph was meant to counter the idea that Barres is misrepresenting others’ positions as “women are inept” when they are really “women have traits that make them less likely to succeed at science”. Now that I think about it, though, I’m’a back away from that reading. Inferring “women are inept” is unfair if it’s done without examining the spicy-brainist’s idea of what makes a good scientist, and the rhetoric surrounding hir spicy-brainism.

    John, I think you’ve read me right, though I’d say the derailment usually just makes progress more difficult, not impossible. Now that it’s daylight, I’d also rewrite my argument to be more clear the circumstances in which raising the issue constitutes a derailment.

    You may feel yourself unqualified to administer justice, but it is nevertheless your job to do so. As (relatively) senior faculty you’re in a position of some power – you help dole out NSF money, nominate people for promotions and awards, mentor students, engage in departmental politics (even if that engagement consists of trying to avoid it), yadda yadda. With power comes responsibility etc.

  6. John Vidale wrote:

    I do have to make choices, as does everyone, to a greater or lesser extent.

    This balance comes up most often in special consideration for gender equity and treatment of star college athletes, both often require trips to the administration office to clean up some mess.

    I find it helpful to leave the formulation of policies such as affirmative action to people who know what they are doing, and not try to freelance reinterpretations to fit my own ideas.

  7. Lab Lemming wrote:

    Look at it as a signal/background problem:
    If you want to accurately measure the genetic/biological differences in male/ female science aptitude, you must first create a bias-free environment in which they can practice science. Because all current data simply tells us that discrimination (whether structural or personal) is both large, unpredictable, and variable. And large, unpredectabel, and variable backgrounds are the hardest ones to subtract.

  8. Dr. Shellie wrote:

    Great post, yami. Sometimes I really don’t care whether there turn out to be innate biological differences between men and women or not, because I am fairly sure that no matter what the answer, eliminating the social & political obstacles to success HAS to increase the gender ratio in certain science fields, at least from 10% female to more like 20% or 30%. and anyway, suppose women ARE innately different. How, exactly, does that change my life? Not at all. I’ll still be in the same lab, doing the same science. The only effect this entire discussion has on me is that certain people like to use the specter of innate biological differences to justify & excuse the defense of the status quo in EVERY RESPECT. I wish that Larry Summers had put that energy he used to investigate the “hypothesis” that innate differences accounted for discrepancies in numbers in the upper levels into setting up a better day care facility for Harvard faculty, staff, students, and workers, for example.

  9. John Vidale wrote:

    didn’t mean for the women-athlete analogy to be a conversation stopper.

    It is just an observation that those two issues, plus diversity, are the vast majority of the cases where the faculty is most often at a loss, or at least seriously conflicted, how to proceed. And often winds up with training sessions, extra meetings to figure it out. Or litigation. Or lobbying by alumni, special financing to encourage us to do the right thing.

    On Dr. Shellie’s suggestion – The idea that Summers should just fund daycare is great, but it is not in a vacuum, it takes space, management effort, a payroll, the burden of inequity if not everyone can be accommodated (and Crimson egos take slights poorly). We have very good daycare and an elementary school on site at my institution, but it absorbs serious resources, and junior faculty are far from the greatest beneficiaries.

  10. yami wrote:

    Daycare is lovely, but from a purely selfish point of view, what really freaks me out are studies that show identical CVs evaluated differently depending on the gender that’s attached. Eliminating unconscious bias is much less straightforward than providing daycare, but on the up side, I suspect the solutions will be pretty cheap.

    Kerrick, if I let on about how po-mo I really am, I’d lose all my science friends.

  11. John Vidale wrote:

    The skewed evaluation of CVs is most disturbing to me, too.

    I suppose it may be mitigated by two things: (1) the fact, in my field, that usually a CV is NOT read in isolation, we know the people at least by reputation if not from familiarity with their thesis, thesis advisor, area of research, etc. (2) I’ll catch flack for this, but it is possible we mentally compensate for affirmative action in the awarding of some items in CVs.

    But the straightforward interpretation is a pervasive bias, crying out for unambiguous identification and elimination.

  12. yami wrote:

    I don’t find that non-isolation comforting – reputation seems, if anything, even more likely to be a place where bias can hide.

    Do you mean compensate as in, “maybe she only got that award because they needed to give it to a woman”? Or “I might be biased, I’ll try to compensate”?

  13. John Vidale wrote:

    My impression is that non-isolation is generally an advantage, although maybe I’m an optimist.

    And I meant compensation in the less charitable sense, as few of us actually think we are biased – we are each our own definition of UNbiased, and I’m no exception.

    I’m afraid the CV experiment makes it hard to think people are in tune with your hope “I might be biased, I’ll try to compensate”.

  14. yami wrote:

    Yeah, I was just a bit confused trying to imagine how it’d be a mitigating factor. I’ve spent enough time arguing with Internet trolls to believe that some people do think that way, though.

    What I’d like to see is an individual version of the gendered CV experiment, something designed to confront people with their own biases. Project Implicit is great, but it’s hard to make the leap from one’s implicit associations to an actual, concrete professional disadvantage.

    Non-isolation’s effect probably varies depending on the personalities involved.

  15. John Vidale wrote:

    Just to be clear, I meant it as sort of a double negative – people might discount women’s CVs for the legitimate reason that some honors might be easier for women to get. This might partly explain the CV experiment result.

    I’m not saying this is true, just that it might be a factor. Seems unlikely, though.

    I suspect there is a fundamental, untestable component that is just blind gender stereotypes, and as men and women in fact ARE different, and it will be difficult to overcome logically.

    I’m glad seismology and the heat flow paradox are much easier problems.

  16. yami wrote:

    Legitimate reason? No wonder you were expecting flack! Though if you want to list which awards are easiest for women to win, I’ll be sure to nominate myself…

    I’m not glad that heat flow is easier; I’d give almost anything for it to be the other way ’round. Much better to bang my head on infuriatingly difficult science than to have this constant low-level uncertainty about how my gender influences my career, how much of my angst is internalized sexist nonsense and how much is a normal part of grad school, and so on.

  17. John Vidale wrote:

    As I said, I doubt the net effect is that awards are easier for women to earn. However, some CV fillers are only for women by their rules, and periodically organizations issue edicts to find more women, most recently the Royal Society comes to mind, so certainly it is possible in cases.

    My flip comment should be interpreted: taking the difficult nature of gender bias as a given, its lucky for us our research depends on more tractable problems, given my inability to solve the really hard problems. Or better yet, I shouldn’t have said it.

  18. Lab Lemming wrote:

    JGR is such a girl’s journal…

    It would be interesting to look at the CV issue to see if the bias is more or less apparent when comparing publication to other listed accolades. ’cause I don’t know of anyone who thinks women have an easier time getting published.

    As for the benefit of non-isolation, I’ll go out of a limb and say that it helps men more than women, since most geological socilisations and interations are traditionally male activities. If you guys can think of testable observations I can make at Goldschmidt to investigate this hypothesis, I’d be glad to do so.

    How does one differentiate between a pervasive universla bias and a sporatic, intense bias?

    And finally, a q for Yami. Are you looking for a female seismology role model? Just keep reminding yourself who discovered the inner core. Or if you want someone a bit younger, less dead, and more likely to respond, say so and we can ask around.

  19. Lab Lemming wrote:

    p.s. Spelling is optional after midnight.

  20. John Vidale wrote:

    Possible female role models – the National Academy seismologist in charge at her institution, the person in charge of their seismic network until she moved to a better job this year in Albuquerque, and the National Academy chief scientist in charge of the USGS at Menlo Park until Rufus took over last year.

    No women seismologists at the other local institution Stanford, although they lost out to Harvard in the attempt to hire one last year. At UC Santa Cruz, two of the three seismologists are women. Not really a local shortage.

  21. Lab Lemming wrote:

    Sounds good, Yami- as long as you can avoid having the AGU seismology group president sing love somgs outside your apartment window at 10:30 on a Saturday night.

  22. John Vidale wrote:


    A casual reader might think you’re referring to me (although I haven’t been the S officer for a few years now), which I assume you are not.

  23. yami wrote:

    I don’t feel a need for female role models, per se – and as John points out, there are some around if I do. My personal issues re: gender right now are mostly to do with teasing out the ways I’ve internalized social expectations, humdrum stuff most suitable for close friends, or a therapist if things get dire.

    I imagine one could devise survey questions to identify women who’ve experienced intense sexism, and then exclude them from your longitudinal study. But I doubt there are easy bright lines.

  24. Lab Lemming wrote:

    I apologize if such an interpretation is apparent. I was still referring to local area seismologists.

    The only expectation that society has for grad students is that they starve.

  25. John Vidale wrote:


    Thanks, I’m probably a bit more careful about image than most as I use my real name.


  26. Dr. Shellie wrote:

    John, if I am reading you right, you are saying that you like to leave the formulation of affirmative action policies to people who know what they are doing, but also that there is a possibility that faculty may downgrade women’s CV’s to compensate for overly-agressive affirmative action policies. I wonder whether the relegation of diversity/affirmative action/multicultural issues and discussions to Diversity Officers/administrators and the like, without active engagement of the faculty in creating policy, doesn’t contribute to affirmative action backlash. (Informally speaking: professors see it as “some nonsense from the diversity office, etc.” rather than as something they had a stake in.) Certainly I have seen a similar division in government labs.

  27. John Vidale wrote:

    It’s not really your question, but my comment on this subject would be this:

    The ideal process for formulating policies draws on the faculty for the areas in which they are the experts, and elicits their approval and co-operation for the resulting policies.

    However, some of the decisions are political rather than scientific, and faculty are notoriously difficult to tell how to behave politically.

    If old-school faculty want to judge strictly on merit, as defined by the way things have been done for decades, they will do so, no matter how many times someone offers them “Why so slow” or some other more modern view of the problems.

    In brief, one can ask all the profs what they should be done, but many will not like many of the answers they hear, and movement toward consensus is NOT assured.

  28. Lab Lemming wrote:

    You left out the part where statistical analyses and hindcasts of “old-school merit-only judgements” show a gender-related bias.

    In many ways, this is the stickiest part of the problem.

  29. John Vidale wrote:

    yes, that’s what I meant, “old-school” and “the way things have been done for decades” leads to the current state of disproportionate representation of the genders.

  30. Lab Lemming wrote:

    There is an important difference, however, between “leading to a disproportionate representation” and “treating in an unequal manner.” Achieving a consensus to rectify the second situation would hopefuly be easier than the first, but if the second is fixed, the first might just disappear.

  31. John Vidale wrote:

    There’s an overwhelming consensus already to eradicate unequal treatment. No one speaks out in favor of unequal treatment, except of course affirmative action.

    However, it is far from obvious what is unequal, and how to fix it. Nor is it obvious that equal treatment will lead to proportionate representation.

  32. Lab Lemming wrote:


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