Sex and science debated

Stephen Pinker is among the most interesting practitioners of what, these days, we call “cognitive science” – the study of the human mind.  He belongs to a particular school:  evolutionary psychology (yes, all cognitive scientists used to be psychologists, until for funding reasons another neo-Greek word was minted).

He’s Canadian, which makes him mild-mannered at his most ferocious, and painfully liberal at his most Darwinian.  Yet he is among the few who continue to make the case, supported by much evidence, that the sexes (or as we now call ourselves, having somehow become grammatical particles, the “genders”) show innate cognitive differences, and that such differences may explain the predominance of men in the science faculties.

This debate with Elizabeth Spelke, another distinguised psychologist (whatever), neatly captures the evidence for both sides of the question, and is besides an example of what critical discussion should sound like.  For the record, Pinker wins, knockout in the first round.  (Other judges may disagree.)  Here’s a sample of Pinker’s argument, of some interest to this blog:

But it is crucial to distinguish the moral proposition that people should not be discriminated against on account of their sex – which I take to be the core of feminism – and the empirical claim that males and females are biologically indistinguishable. They are not the same thing. Indeed, distinguishing them is essential to protecting the core of feminism. Anyone who takes an honest interest in science has to be prepared for the facts on a given issue to come out either way. And that makes it essential that we not hold the ideals of feminism hostage to the latest findings from the lab or field. Otherwise, if the findings come out as showing a sex difference, one would either have to say, “I guess sex discrimination wasn’t so bad after all,” or else furiously suppress or distort the findings so as to preserve the ideal. The truth cannot be sexist.

Read the whole debate.  The comparison with Larry Summers’ self-abasement at Harvard is distressing.

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