In January 2005, Larry Summers violated a sex taboo at Harvard by positing innate differences between men and women as one reason for women’s lack of success in the hard sciences. In punishment, he was forced to apologize in public several times, ever more abjectly, and when he had apologized enough he was fired from the Harvard presidency. Last fall the National Academy of Science declared the subject closed: bias, not innate differences, it proclaimed, caused the dearth of women in science.
This blog doesn’t much worry about women in science. There are more pressing concerns, particularly when it comes to women: to wit, what is the “good life” for a woman? Should a woman, like Professor Henry Higgins wished, “be more like a man”?
That was the orthodoxy in Harvard, the taboo Summers stumbled over. That is the orthodoxy from the National Academy of Science as well. Women may look different from men, but think exactly like they do. End of discussion — nod your head vigorously if you want to keep your job.
Two problems arise with the Henry Higgins orthodoxy. First, the biological destiny of women is to bear children. They can refuse if they wish, but few wish it, and most wish desperately to become mothers. That creates a tension with work that men know nothing about — more so with demanding work, like science research.
The life of a talented female scientist consists of a series of questions to which our moral structure no longer provides answers. When to have children, if ever? How many hours to spend at work, if any? What should a woman live for — herself, her family, her job, all, or none?
Second, even if women are identical to men cognitively, they may differ in their desires. Stephen Pinker made this case in The Blank Slate. Women, he argued, may be disproportionately more interested in professions that deal with actual human beings, rather than in dehumanized abstractions, games, and things. Thus they represent a majority in the cognitive science departments — what used to be called psychology — but are under-represented in the hard sciences.
The point is, nobody knows. The data is suggestive but sparse. The moral guideposts are gone. Every young woman today must blaze her own trail: that sounds heroic but is in fact terrifying, and can lead to much pain and regret.
The point is, the orthodoxy is just that — a dogma. It stands in the way of an honest confession of ignorance, and (as Larry Summers learned) it kills an important conversation. This Cathy Young article in the Boston Globe (via RealClearPolitics) maintains that the National Academy of Sciences report skewed toward evidence favoring the Henry Higgins orthodoxy. Studies that trampled the taboo were ignored.
Science is corrupted by such practices — true. That is Young’s complaint. Mine is personal, not business. The feminists who impose dogma on doubt, and who probably imagine themselves warriors for the liberation their sex, do young women looking ahead to their life choices a terrible disservice.