Profs Spar on ‘Innate Differences’

Psychologists Pinker and Spelke debate the data behind Summers' comments

In a showdown of the sexes on Friday, Johnstone Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker and Professor of Psychology Elizabeth Spelke debated whether innate differences lead to the underrepresentation of tenured women in math and the sciences.

In front of a packed Science Center B crowd, they analyzed the data behind University President Lawrence H. Summers’ controversial January comments on women in science.

Pinker, whom Summers recruited to Harvard last year, cited evidence arguing that male superiority in skills like mental object rotation and problem solving provides a biological basis for the argument that men are more talented at math and science.

Spelke countered, acknowledging the existence of differences between men and women, but arguing that the reason “women are as scarce as hen’s teeth” in academia is due to discrimination.

“The debate is not, ‘are there sex differences,’ it’s, ‘do they add up to an advantage for one gender over the other,’” Spelke reminded the audience.

Prefacing his comments by saying that he was a feminist, Pinker stressed the importance of distinguishing between the moral and empirical claims about gender differences.

“The truth cannot be sexist,” he said.

Though Spelke attacked his yardstick indicator—the SAT mathematics examinations—Pinker maintained that “the tests are very good. They have an enormous amount of predictive power.”

Pinker also noted that men and women tend to have different priorities in life; men seek status and money, while women look more for interpersonal relationships.

“What this means is that there are slightly more men than women who don’t care whether or not they have a life,” Pinker said.

Spelke did not address the argument about motives directly, saying that she did not think there was evidence available to evaluate the claim that motives are biologically determined.

She focused on proving the existence of covert discrimination by looking at how gender stereotypes influence the way men and women are perceived.

She presented studies in which employers were given identical resumes—with only the candidate’s gender switched—that found that men were perceived as being more productive than women.

She admitted, however, that “we’re not dealing with overt discrimination,” saying that in unambiguous situations, where one candidate is clearly superior to the other, there is no evidence of sex discrimination.

Pinker later noted that women are not underrepresented everywhere, but only in the hard sciences.

Several audience members said they thought the evening concluded in Spelke’s favor.

“Spelke did an amazing job,” said Adam N. Sternthal ’08, who is currently enrolled in Pinker’s class, Science B-62, “The Human Mind.” “[Pinker] never really responded to that ubiquitous bias that her studies pointed to.”

“They were both quite wonderful, but she got the best of the argument,” said Dorothy S. Heaton ’64, who attended the discussion with her husband, an engineer.

“Spelke brought up some key points,” said Parvinder S. Thiara ’07, who sported a Che-Summers shirt for the event. “But she did admit, and I think it’s important, that at the highest level, there was no discrimination.”

—Staff writer Natalie I. Sherman can be reached at nsherman@fas.harvard.edu.