There’s an article over on The Curious Wavefunction blog titled “Neil DeGrasse Tyson makes an excellent point, but Larry Summers is still right.” I know we’re not supposed to judge a blog post by its title (that’s how that saying goes, right?), but I saw this and immediately thought to myself, “this couldn’t possibly be awful!”
Social psychologist Chris Martin fronts the post with a bit of Larry Summers apologia in the form of a nice long blockquote from Summers’ now-infamous 2005 talk in which he pondered on the reasons for a lack of women in academia. Despite the implication, that quote certainly was not the most problematic part of the talk, and I would beg to differ that Summers’ talk has been as misrepresented as Martin claims. Here, read the speech for yourself. I’m particularly fond of the part where Summers explains that his twin daughters were totes not socialized into normative feminine gender roles because they were given toy trucks by their parents!
Martin then brings up this awesome response by Neil deGrasse Tyson to “the Larry Summers question” (i.e., why aren’t there more women in science?):
Neil deGrasse Tyson responded to the question quite well, but since he’s not a social scientist, he wasn’t able to draw on psychological research on gender differences. His answer focused on stereotyping and self-fulfilling prophecy effect. I don’t blame him the slightest for lacking expertise in an area outside his specialty, but I do think people who only watch that video could come away with a misconception about the impact of stereotyping.
Actually, what Tyson’s answer focused on was not “stereotypes and self-fulfilling prophecy” but rather on his own experiences as a person of color going into science. For Martin to jump in here and basically say, “sorry Neil, but since you’re not an expert in social psychology, you’re unequipped to answer the Larry Summers question!” is beyond absurd. Tyson may not have expertise in social psychology, but he sure as hell has expertise in being a person of color in science, and I’ll take his experiences over Martin’s psychobabble any day!
Martin’s answer to the Larry Summers question boils down to #notallsciences. Instead of addressing the gender gap issues in science, Martin says, “I think we need to retire [the acronym] STEM” and talk about all the sciences. But “the sciences” is not the problem—it’s particular disciplines and areas within the sciences that have this problem.
First, let’s be really clear: the question at issue is why aren’t there more women in science? I think it’s important to take a moment to unpack this question: What’s being asked here is why are women underrepresented in certain scientific disciplines? When this question is asked, despite what Martin argues, the word “science” is being used as a gloss for the physical sciences, and sometimes this gloss includes other fields like engineering and other applied sciences. In other words, the question is really asking why there aren’t more women in STEM fields. When this question is asked, typically people are not referring to the social sciences, most of which have more women than men (though there is no lack of androcentrism!). It’s really pretty simple to see how this is the case: if I were to apply for funding for a cultural anthropology project from an organization that is funding STEM fields, my grant application would be rejected outright because cultural anthropology–a social science–is not considered to fall under the purview of STEM.
All it does is muddy the waters when Martin brings in gender ratios from a bunch of social sciences and “for simplicity” leaves off applied sciences like engineering. It does not actually address the spirit of the question being asked at all. Essentially, Martin’s post shifts the question from “why are women underrepresented in the “hard” sciences?” to “why are women underrepresented in all kinds of science, except applied sciences like engineering?” And, from there, Martin goes on to answer his own question by showing numbers from a variety of disciplines that do not support the notion that men outnumber women in the sciences, and therefore claims that Tyson was off base. But that’s not the question that is being discussed by Tyson.
As for Martin’s answer to his own question, it’s a bunch of the usual crap. He throws in some Steven Pinker and evolutionary psychology, making sure to point out how one of his sources is a feminist so her work couldn’t possibly be biased research. He also seems to rely solely on psychological research, despite the fact that we know much of it is extremely problematic in its generalized claims about human beings.
But none of that stops Martin from sharing a bunch of citations backing up sound scientific claims totally not-socialized ideas about women into the post:
Women, on average, don’t seem to be more interested in people per se, but rather they do seem more interested in the natural world. On average, they also have a stronger nurturing tendency than men, because through evolutionary history a non-trivial number of men abandoned their children, leaving women to raise their children. Although I’m just speculating here, this might explain why women show more interest in veterinary medicine than human medicine, animals being childlike in their behavior.