The president of Harvard, Larry Summers, recently ignited a huge controversy by suggesting that the fewer number of women found in engineering and the sciences in the United States of America may have something to do with the distribution of aptitude amongst men and women. Summers considered three hypotheses for the fewer number of women in the top ends of these disciplines: career choices made by women in light of the demands of these disciplines, patterns of socialization and discrimination, and differential distribution of aptitudes. While not discounting the force of the first two, Summers argued that they were not sufficient to explain the extent to which women were under-represented in these fields. His starting point was that we might have overestimated the power of a change in social norms to restore gender balance in this area. Despite an effective revolution in social norms, achieving gender balance in these disciplines was proving to be difficult, and it was time we acknowledged that aptitude may have something to do with it.
Summers' claims led to an extraordinary protest and forced him to issue an apology. Most feminists were outraged, as were a large number of other liberals. Conservatives jumped on to the Summers bandwagon. A few scientists liked Steven Pinker tried to bring a more nuanced understanding of Summers' claims. In particular, they pointed out that these claims had no implications for how the aptitude of any individual was judged. Further, as Summers himself had pointed out, even very minute difference in the distribution of aptitudes could make a huge impact on outcomes at the top end of these professions. But the outrage continued unabated. Summers had waded into the choppy waters of political incorrectness. Summers thought he was pursuing scientific truth; his critics thought he was undermining defensible norms about gender equality.
The fact that the claims incited such protest was not surprising. But at a deeper level, the controversy revealed something about the schizophrenia that characterizes our attitudes to the relationship between science and ethics. A key sentence in Summers' speech was 'It does appear that on many, many different human attributes ' height, weight, propensity for criminality, overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability ' there is relatively clear evidence that whatever the difference in means ' which can be debated 'there is a difference in the standard deviation, and variability of a male and a female population.'
Whether these claims are true or not is beside the point. What is interesting is that we are torn between two kinds of responses. The first response is empirical. It tries to meet this evidence on its own terms. So we simply turn around and say, that this evidence is not true. We raise the spectre of pseudo-science, scientism and the abuse of science. We argue that the methodology of these studies is faulty; the overall indicators used deficient, the data biased. This sort of response acknowledges that Summers' kind of claim could be true. It is just that current evidence does not warrant the conclusions. But this kind of response acknowledges the authority of the type of claim being advanced. It meets science on science's terms.
The second kind of response is more radical. It simply says that empirical investigations of this kind have no bearing on the aptitudes we ought to attribute to men and women. It is as if science and ethics are independent domains: nothing produced in the domain of one activity has any bearing on ethics. The whole project of supposing that 'objective facts' could have a bearing on social norms is a deep mistake.
But this separation of science and ethics is not that easy. What was at issue in Summers' claims was this: Our modern ethical sensibility tells us that we should construct society on the premise that there is no significant difference in the distribution of aptitudes across particular classes of our population. All or most of these significant differences can be explained away as resulting from social artifice. Appropriately designed social policy can be effective precisely because social norms are the root of the problem. Summers' claims were disconcerting not simply because they raised the question of women's aptitudes. But they also challenged an even more fundamental presumption. Here is our ethics saying, 'Design social policy on the premise of the equal distribution of aptitudes.' But here is our science saying, 'Such attribution of equal aptitudes is a piece of wishful thinking.'
This tension, pointedly articulated, does not go away easily. There are three strategies for dealing with it, but all are ineffective. The first is to simply hope that the claims of science will always yield results that are propitious for our ethical sensibilities. But this is nothing more than a hope. It has no resources for answering those, like Summers, who question whether our social aspirations are in line with our scientific knowledge. The second strategy is to accept the potentially uncomfortable results of science.
It may be that Summers is right, but that has no implications for norms of equality between men and women. At one level, even Summers would probably agree with this proposition. But, at another level, these results do lead to a reallocation of social priorities. For if Summers is right, then one ought to worry about overt forms of discrimination. But one ought not to worry about the fact that women are under-represented in a variety of fields. To worry about that would be like worrying about why there are very few short players in basketball.
The third response is to simply ignore whatever science claims to come up with in this matter. But this is easier said then done, because in a whole range of fields, we do accept the authority of science. What is the principled reason for supposing that we should accept that it is an empirical matter how propensity for disease is genetically distributed across populations, but that it is not an empirical matter whether other aptitudes are so distributed' Are we even entitled to ask these kinds of question at all' When it comes to the authority of science, we like to have our cake and eat it too.
In some ways, as Kant had so clearly pointed out, the conflict between freedom and determinism, science and ethics, the domain of objective knowledge and the requirements of practical reason, cannot be solved philosophically. As human beings, we are fated to inhabit a zone of tension between these polarities. There is no assurance that the demands emanating from the different ends of these polarities can be made to cohere. All we can do is have a principled hope that they can cohere ' but we have no way of knowing for sure.
Will the actual facts about us (science) harmonize with our ethical aspirations' Summers' sin was to suggest that they might not. Given the long history of discrimination against women, the deleterious consequences of what he suggested cannot be overestimated. But is it an adequate response to simply hope or assume that Summers got his science wrong' Or do we need to worry about the place of science itself in the modern consciousness'
But, to cut the benighted Summers some slack, he is an eminent economist with two Nobel-prize-winning uncles, both economists: Kenneth Arrow and Paul Samuelson. Perhaps, in raising the question of the distribution of aptitudes, he was simply trying to come to terms with his own inheritance. He was honestly trying to pursue a line of inquiry to where it leads. Most of us assume that although honest mistakes are possible, the pursuit of science will lead to conclusions we like. But that, as Nietzsche reminded us, is simply an act of faith. Summers is a heretic because he denied the tenets of our modern faith. We can have our normative goals or we can believe in the authority of science. But there might be a disquieting possibility that we cannot have both.