Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Sean Carroll gets Edgy

Now here's a shock - Sean Carroll doesn't like Steven Pinker's Edge Idea:

Each year publishing agent John Brockman asks a deep question of some of the world’s leading thinkers, who just happen to be Brockman’s clients (via Peter Woit). It’s what you’d expect: a mixture of interesting ideas and rampant nonsense. This year Nobel Laureate Philip Anderson says some silly things about cosmology, which maybe I’ll talk about later; but the prize for the worst response comes from Steven Pinker.

To make a long story short, here’s Pinker being saucily provocative:
In January, Harvard president Larry Summers caused a firestorm when he cited research showing that women and men have non-identical statistical distributions of cognitive abilities and life priorities.
That’s what’s known in studies of rhetoric as a “blatant lie.” It’s true that Summers caused a firestorm; it’s also true that he cited such research. It’s just not true that it was the citation that caused the firestorm. The firestorm was caused when Summers suggested that differences in innate aptitude were more important than systematic biases in explaining the gender gap among professional scientists.
Well, what Summers really suggested was that his audience consider that hypothesis, and cited the evidence mentioned.

Sean considers that a "blatant lie." I think it's more like a possible misrepresentation of emphasis, but a less egregious one than Sean's "blatant lie" claim. Sean also claims there is "overwhelming evidence" against that hypothesis, and cites his own previous posts here and here on the subject. I'm afraid I found his evidence slightly underwhelming, but form your own opinion.

In the second of the cited posts, Sean spends a lot of time attacking the idea that the larger percentage of boys than girls choosing science could be related to the fact that boys are over-represented on the high end of standardized tests of math ability. The centerpiece of his argument is that:
By the time students are in twelfth grade, there is a substantial gap in the fraction of boys vs. girls who plan to study science in college. So it’s easy enough to ask: how much of that gap is explained by differing scores on standardized tests? Answer: none of it. Girls are much less likely than boys to plan on going into science, and Xie and Shauman find that the difference is independent of their scores on the standardized tests.
He regards that as a decisive refutation of the idea that women are underrepresented because they are less likely to have the same level of math talent, but I think this is just flawed statistical reasoning on Sean's part. In particular, it assumes that twelfth grade girls' career choices are independent of the choices of other twelfth grade girls. Imagine, if you like, that you are the only 12th grade girl with a 740 Math SAT in a high school class that has, say, six boys in the same Math SAT category. Is it just possible that your career choice might resemble most other 12th grade girls career choice more than it resembles other 740 Math SAT scorers?

Sean wonders how loud you have to shout to get his point across. The irony, of course, is that his point of view is virtually compulsory in the academic elite. Less shouting and more objective analysis might be useful - but that always risks the possibility that the facts might not fit your theory.

It is an undoubted fact that women are highly under-represented among elite math and science faculties. It is also a fact that there are undoubtely obstacles, including obstacles that are not sex neutral, to joining that elite. I strongly support any efforts to remove or mitigate such obstacles and eliminate unfair discrimination. Nonetheless, starting by assuming that all differences of outcome are due to discrimination is mindless folly - and almost everybody knows this except for ivory tower academics.

UPDATE: Who, me, vindictive? OK, so maybe I am a bit burned about Sean deleting my comment, but let me just reiterate what initially annoyed me. Note that in the quote, Sean characterises as a "blatant lie" a statement whose literal truth he explicitly concedes. What apparently bothers Sean is the (unstated, but obvious to Sean) implication of causal relationship. So is Sean shouting because he doesn't think Pinker emphasized the part of the part of Summer's speech that personally offended him? I think so.

I should know better than to get involved in arguments over religion.