Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Best. Example. Ever!

This is old, but I'm just finding it now, due to helpful links from Bitch. Ph.D.

Larry Summers (yes, again with Larry Summers) has been widely defended for floating a hypothesis. Scientists are supposed to float hypotheses, right? Karl Popper said the more improbable the hypothesis, the better, since the whole point is to try to falsify them. So, why on earth would all those women scientists (scientists!) be bothered that Summers posed an improbable hypothesis, namely, that innate biological factors account for the greater number of men than women in the higher strata of science?

Well, Sean Carroll offers a lovely example to illustrate some of the bother:

Entertaining hypotheses can, in context, be offensive. Summers' own defense was that he was simply offering an hypothesis, and even hoped that he would be proven wrong. How can innocent scientific inquiry upset people so much? We should be devoted to the truth, right?

Okay, imagine you like to play chess, but the only person you know with a chess set is your friend (let's call him "Larry"), so you have to play with him over and over. You believe that the two of you are evenly matched, so the games should be competitive. Except that, while you are an extremely polite and considerate player, Larry is consistently obnoxious. When it is your turn to move, Larry likes to take out his trumpet and practice scales (he's a terrible trumpet player). Also, he tends to flick the light switch on and off while you are thinking. And he is consistently jiggling the chessboard slightly, so that the pieces are vibrating around. Occasionally, at crucial points during the game, he will poke you in the side with a sharp stick. And more than once, when it looked like you were about to win the game, he would "accidentally" spill his coffee on the board, knocking over the pieces, and declare the game a draw by forfeit.

You put up with this behavior (he does, after all, own the chess set), but you are only able to win about ten percent of the games. Eventually, in frustration, you complain that his behavior is unfair and he should cut it out. "Well," says Larry, "let's entertain the hypothesis that you usually lose because you just aren't as good a chess player as I am. I suggest that you are just a sore loser with inferior cognitive capacity, although I'd love to be wrong about this."

Perhaps he is correct -- but in context, you have every right to slap him. Nobody should be against seeking the truth and exploring different hypotheses. But when systematic biases are widespread and perfectly obvious, and these biases are strongly affecting the representation of a group such as women, people have every right to be offended when the president of the most famous university in the world suggests that discrimination is imaginary, and it's women's own fault that there aren't more female scientists. Of course psychologists and sociologists should continue to do research on all sorts of hypotheses, and perhaps some day we will have a playing field that is sufficiently level that any remaining differences in the numbers of working scientists can be plausibly attributed to innate capacities. But in the meantime, we should be focused on overcoming the ridiculous biases that plague our field, not in pretending that they don't exist.

I'd say that's about right.

By the way, Sean Carroll is a physicist, not a philosopher, so he probably wasn't heavily schooled in rhetoric. Just so you know ...


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