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Behind the claim that men are better than women at math...
Sexism disguised as science

February 18, 2005 | Page 8

PHIL GASPER exposes the pseudo-science myths of Harvard President Lawrence Summers.

IN THE nineteenth century, scientific opinion held that women were biologically unsuited for a college education because strenuous intellectual activity would divert energy from their reproductive organs, causing infertility.

Last month, Harvard University President Lawrence Summers proposed a more refined version of this view when he suggested that the under-representation of women in science and engineering fields may be due to their innate differences with men.

Summers--who in a previous life was Clinton's Treasury Secretary--made his suggestion at an academic conference in Cambridge, Mass., provoking several leading women scientists to walk out on his talk. "[W]hen the president of Harvard University appears to support the theory of innate differences, that pushes the stereotype into the realm of fact and makes it acceptable to think that women are just a little dumber by nature," said Nancy Hopkins, a biology professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Predictably, right-wing media pundits soon leapt to Summers' defense, praising his courageous stand against the "political correctness" of his critics. But there is a long tradition of offering unsubstantiated biological justifications for the status quo that ignore or downplay the role of bias and discrimination in producing social stratification.

In the 1860s, Charles Darwin's cousin Francis Galton argued that intelligence was inherited, because many prominent English families had long histories of social success. The alternative explanation that what was inherited was wealth and status seems not to have occurred to him.

Since Galton assumed that existing inequalities reflected fundamental facts about human nature, he concluded that "the average intellectual standard of the negro race is some two grades below our own," and that "the Jews are specialized for a parasitical existence upon other nations."

This kind of outright racism is no longer scientifically respectable, but similar views about women remain common. Thus, the Harvard sociobiologist Edward Wilson has proposed that genetic differences between the sexes mean that "even with identical education and equal access to all professions, men are likely to play a disproportionate role in political life, business and science." More recently, the Harvard psychologist (what is it about that school?) Steven Pinker has made similar claims.

But far from being based on serious scientific evidence, these ideas reflect widespread social prejudices.

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IT IS obviously the case that men and women are biologically distinct, including some intriguing differences in brain structure. But there is no evidence that this results in any significant difference in intellectual abilities.

"We adults may think very different things about boys and girls, and treat them accordingly, but when we measure their capacities, they're remarkably alike," says another Harvard psychologist, Elizabeth Spelke, who studies the spatial, quantitative and numerical abilities of young children. "[W]hile we always test for gender differences in our studies, we never find them."

By the fourth grade, boys slightly outperform girls on standardized math and science tests in the U.S. But in some other countries, there is either no disparity, or the girls outperform the boys. And girls in several of these countries outperform the U.S. boys. "International comparisons show the USA test scores being below the average of 41 countries' test scores," points out Stanford physics professor Cheryl Spencer. "So are USA-ans genetically less good at math than the citizens of 20 other countries? By President Summers' reasoning, they are."

Whatever the test results, they don't explain why fewer men than women pursue scientific careers.

Actually, about half of the undergraduate science and math degrees awarded every year go to women, and women in advanced math classes typically do better than men, with slightly better test scores. But fewer women than men pursue graduate work in science. In 1997, 250,000 men in the U.S. earned graduate degrees in science and engineering, but only160,000 women did. Even fewer find jobs in academia, where only 10 percent of science and math faculty are women.

Does this reflect innate differences--or plain old-fashioned sexism?

"The atmosphere [in graduate school] isn't compelling or welcoming" to women, says Harvard physics professor Melissa Franklin. There is overwhelming anecdotal evidence supporting this observation. "I...have experienced behavior that is hard to explain in terms of anything but discrimination; senior male mathematicians ignoring my presence when I'm introduced to them, or suggesting point-blank that I pursue another career," reports Lillian Pierce, a math doctoral student at Princeton, and a former Princeton valedictorian and Rhodes scholar. Women in science, says Hopkins, "must deal with men like Larry Summers...They'll tell you they have no bias, but in their head, they are thinking, 'Can women really do math?'"

Research studies have also exposed pervasive sexism. In one, male and female mathematicians were asked to rate articles on a five-point scale. On average, the men rated the same paper a full point higher if the author was identified as a man rather than a woman.

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DEVELOPMENTS IN genetics, biotechnology and brain research over the past 15 years have boosted attempts to explain social inequalities and other social problems in biological terms.

Despite this, efforts to explain aspects of human behavior--from schizophrenia to homosexuality to "criminality"--in genetic terms have not produced any credible results. The McGill University neuroscientist Evan Balaban has described such research as representing a "hierarchy of worthlessness."

In 1993, the media gave prominent attention to the claim, made by researchers at the University of California-San Francisco, that there is a gene for alcoholism. Later, when this claim proved to be baseless, much less attention was given to its retraction. In this case, the researchers worked in the Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center, which receives millions in funding from one of California's biggest manufacturers of cheap wines.

Other examples are more ominous. Last year, a conference on the genetic basis of aggression was held at the Royal Society of Medicine in London.

According to one participant, Donald Pfaff of New York's Rockefeller University, studies of the genetic basis of animal behavior have opened the possibility of creating new drugs to control antisocial action. Another participant, Ohio State geneticist Randy Nelson, said individuals who exhibit impetuous behavior would be likely targets. "If there was some sort of pharmacological treatment that could prevent that sort of impulsive aggressiveness from occurring, that would probably be ideal," Nelson said.

What is most striking about this supposedly scientific research is the extent to which it is based on unquestioned right-wing assumptions. The focus is on the question of why some individuals rather than others turn to crime and violence in certain social conditions--rather than on the social conditions themselves, which are simply taken for granted.

Yet the best single predictor for levels of so-called street crime is the unemployment rate--and it is social differences, not genetic or biological factors, that explain why crime levels are higher in one time and place as opposed to another.

Research on the genetics of crime and violence not only downplays social factors, it focuses almost exclusively on street crimes committed by those at the bottom of the social order. In fact, white-collar and corporate crime--together with many business activities that are perfectly legal under capitalism--cost ordinary citizens far more in financial terms and are responsible for many more deaths each year.

The greatest violence in our society is unleashed by governments in times of war. But there is no suggestion from genetic researchers that new behavior-controlling drugs should be designed and administered to members of the Bush administration, or to the executives of multinational corporations.

Claims that sexual inequality, crime and other aspects of society are rooted in biology have been refuted time and again, but they continually re-emerge in new versions because of the ideological value they have for economic and political elites. We have to expose these pseudo-scientific myths for what they are--while we fight to end the system that needs them.

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