PSYCHOANALYSIS Q-and-A: Steven Pinker

In an e-mail exchange with The Crimson yesterday, Johnstone Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker, who teaches the popular spring core class “The Human Mind,” opined on the latest flap over President Summers’ comments on women in science.

CRIMSON: From what psychologists know, is there ample evidence to support the hypothesis that a difference in “innate ability” accounts for the under-representation of women on science faculties?

PINKER: First, let’s be clear what the hypothesis is—every one of Summers’ critics has misunderstood it. The hypothesis is, first, that the statistical distributions of men’s and women’s quantitative and spatial abilities are not identical—that the average for men may be a bit higher than the average for women, and that the variance for men might be a bit higher than the variance for women (both implying that there would be a slightly higher proportion of men at the high end of the scale). It does not mean that all men are better at quantitative abilities than all women! That’s why it would be immoral and illogical to discriminate against individual women even if it were shown that some of the statistidcal differences were innate.

Second, the hypothesis is that differences in abilities might be one out of several factors that explain differences in the statistical representation of men and women in various professions. It does not mean that it is the only factor. Still, if it is one factor, we cannot reflexively assume that different statistical representation of men and women in science and engineering is itself proof of discrimination. Incidentally, another sign that we are dealing with a taboo is that when it comes to this issue, ordinarily intelligent scientists suddenly lose their ability to think quantitatively and warp statistical hypotheses into crude dichotomies.

As far as the evidence is concerned, I’m not sure what “ample” means, but there is certainly enough evidence for the hypothesis to be taken seriously.

For example, quantitative and spatial skills vary within a gender according to levels of sex hormones. And in samples of gifted students who are given every conceivable encouragement to excel in science and math, far more men than women expressed an interest in pursuing science and math.

CRIMSON: Were President Summers’ remarks within the pale of legitimate academic discourse?

PINKER: Good grief, shouldn’t everything be within the pale of legitimate academic discourse, as long as it is presented with some degree of rigor? That’s the difference between a university and a madrassa.

CRIMSON: Would it be normal to hear a similar set of hypotheses presented and considered at a conference of psychologists?

PINKER: Some psychologists are still offended by such hypotheses, but yes, they could certainly be considered at most major conferences in scientific psychology.

CRIMSON: Finally, did you personally find President Summers’ remarks (or what you’ve heard/read of them) to be offensive?

PINKER: Look, the truth cannot be offensive. Perhaps the hypothesis is wrong, but how would we ever find out whether it is wrong if it is “offensive” even to consider it? People who storm out of a meeting at the mention of a hypothesis, or declare it taboo or offensive without providing arguments or evidence, don’t get the concept of a university or free inquiry.