Politics & Policy

Truth to Power

Summers of academic discontent,

Last week the country got a taste of academic politics when: (1) the president of Harvard, Larry Summers, raised the possibility at an academic conference that “innate sex differences” might be one of many reasons explaining why fewer women reach the top in science;

(2) MIT professor of biology Nancy Hopkins flounced out of the conference, telling the media she would have “blacked out” had she stayed; and

(3) Summers made a Soviet show-trial confession of sin.

The feminists won the political fight in the academy (of course), but politics can’t change the facts. Here they are:

Sex Hormones Influence an Ability Important to Success in Certain Scientific Fields

The fetus begins development as a female. At about the third month of pregnancy, if the male Y chromosome is present, male sex hormones start to circulate. These sex hormones not only shape external sexual organs, like the penis and testicles. These sex hormones also affect the neurological structure of the human brain.

Male sex hormones shape a cognitive ability important to success in physics and engineering, the ability to visualize three-dimensional objects in space. Take a condition called “congenital adrenal hyperplasia” (CAH). Females with CAH are exposed in the uterus to abnormally high levels of male sex hormones. As adults, these females score substantially higher in spatial abilities. As children, they prefer to play more with “boy toys” and less with “girl toys,” starting them off on a path that develops their spatial skills.

When female-to-male transsexuals are given high doses of testosterone in preparation for sex-change therapy, their visual spatial skills improved dramatically and their verbal skills (where females on average surpass males) decline.

The average difference between males and females on psychological tests of these abilities is huge. Among young adults, six out of every seven males outperform the average female in the ability to create dynamic mental representations of the physical world.

The crucial issue for who is going to be a Harvard or MIT professor of physics is not who falls at the average but who falls at the extremes. Even a small difference in averages creates extreme differences at the top, the people who fall in the far right hand tail of the normal curve. It’s off-the-map talent, not just being good at something, that earns you a full professorship at elite universities like Harvard or MIT. Some will be female, but more will be male.

Males Are More Apt to Be the Oddities at the Top of the Heap and the Bottom of the Barrel

Few people are aware of a fascinating phenomenon that explains a disturbing fact–why so many males appear to be in the ranks of the most distinguished scientists, such as Albert Einstein or Richard Feynman or Stephen Hawking.

On most intellectual abilities, the differences between males and females are trivial, if they exist at all. But males are more variable. The normal curve can be either high and tall (typical of females) or flat and wide (typical of males). The male style curve has longer tails. Males are more apt to fall at the extremes, whether at the very top or at the very bottom.

Charles Darwin drew attention to the greater variability of males in The Descent of Man, first published in 1871. Not only are males more diverse than females, Darwin concluded, after a long study of domestic animals. Males also have more “abnormalities.”

That more males appear in every category of neurological impairment is undisputed. These afflictions show up even before birth, before cultural influences have had a chance to kick in. Miscarriages, where the fetus is defective, for example, are more likely to be male.

Exceptional intellectual ability of any kind is an oddity. We do not call individuals with characteristics our culture values “oddities,” but they are oddities all the same. The other side of the coin is that fewer females have neurological deficits. But women are more apt to look upward with anger than downward with relief.

Mathematically Precocious Young Girls Have Higher Verbal Ability and Broader Interests

Talent searches for mathematically precocious youth, which began at John Hopkins University in 1971, have included well over a million students. The program selects students who score over 700 on the mathematical section of the Scholastic Aptitude Test at the early age of 13, before many have had formal instruction in advanced mathematics. The difference in favor of males is astonishing: 13 males for every 1 female.

Plenty of girls also have high levels of mathematical ability. But mathematically precocious girls typically have higher levels of verbal ability than mathematically precocious boys, and the girls have far broader interests. More of the girls take advantage of their strong verbal skills to select careers in areas other than the physical sciences and engineering.

So What?

This fight boils down to a paltry point–more males than females are apt to have the off-the-map talent that lands them professorships in fields like physics, especially at elite universities. Yes, we should be sensitive to subtle forms of gender discrimination and social stereotyping. But no one could be doing more to reinforce damaging social stereotypes about women than Nancy Hopkins, the MIT professor of biology who started this flap. She didn’t offer argument or evidence. She flounced off, fearful of swooning. This is the behavior of a southern belle of another century, now designed for the quite contemporary political purpose of punishing speech she classified as politically dangerous. We’re entitled to a higher level of civility in academic discourse than Hopkins displayed. And we’re entitled to truth.

Judith Kleinfeld is a professor of psychology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and has written extensively on gender issues.

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