I don't generally think of myself as a masochist, and yet, for some reason, I turn to the op-ed page in the Washington Post every day to check it out.
Today, Ruth Marcus goes for attention-grabbing from the start:
Was Larry Summers right about women and science, after all?
Her column turns out to be based on two studies, published 4+ months ago, that provide more data on test scores for girls and boys. One of the studies was one of those about how, for some tests, boys' scores are more stratified than girls', and more of the top scorers are boys.
The research, of course, doesn't provide new answers on the matter of intrinsic sex differences; it provides information on sex differences as a whole, without evidence as to the nature or nurture of them. But it's no matter to Marcus, who concludes her review of the studies by saying that Summers "probably had a legitimate point." Oh, and for that matter, "the continuing uproar says more about the triumph of political correctness than about Summers's supposed sexism."
So there you have it.
Since Summers is on the table, I'm going to refer back to what Sean Carroll wrote at the time:
Okay, imagine you like to play chess, but the only person you know with a chess set is your friend (let's call him "Larry"), so you have to play with him over and over. You believe that the two of you are evenly matched, so the games should be competitive. Except that, while you are an extremely polite and considerate player, Larry is consistently obnoxious. When it is your turn to move, Larry likes to take out his trumpet and practice scales (he's a terrible trumpet player). Also, he tends to flick the light switch on and off while you are thinking. And he is consistently jiggling the chessboard slightly, so that the pieces are vibrating around. Occasionally, at crucial points during the game, he will poke you in the side with a sharp stick. And more than once, when it looked like you were about to win the game, he would "accidentally" spill his coffee on the board, knocking over the pieces, and declare the game a draw by forfeit.
You put up with this behavior (he does, after all, own the chess set), but you are only able to win about ten percent of the games. Eventually, in frustration, you complain that his behavior is unfair and he should cut it out. "Well," says Larry, "let's entertain the hypothesis that you usually lose because you just aren't as good a chess player as I am. I suggest that you are just a sore loser with inferior cognitive capacity, although I'd love to be wrong about this."
Perhaps he is correct -- but in context, you have every right to slap him. Nobody should be against seeking the truth and exploring different hypotheses. But when systematic biases are widespread and perfectly obvious, and these biases are strongly affecting the representation of a group such as women, people have every right to be offended when the president of the most famous university in the world suggests that discrimination is imaginary, and it's women's own fault that there aren't more female scientists. Of course psychologists and sociologists should continue to do research on all sorts of hypotheses, and perhaps some day we will have a playing field that is sufficiently level that any remaining differences in the numbers of working scientists can be plausibly attributed to innate capacities. But in the meantime, we should be focused on overcoming the ridiculous biases that plague our field, not in pretending that they don't exist.