Muck and Mystery
   Loitering With Intent
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February 27, 2005

The comments of Harvard president Larry Summers about women in science are interesting but the reactions to them are even more interesting. Timothy Burke says:

Most of what I have to say about Larry Summers has been said already by others. He is not a martyr to political correctness. Many of his critics were exaggerated or extreme in their reaction, but the speech he gave was really quite weak.

It’s perfectly ok to get up and say something like, “We have to remain open to a variety of explanations for the relative lack of women in the sciences, including genetic or innate differences between men and women”. But Summers didn’t say that: he went on to speculate that this was the correct hypothesis. The current state of knowledge on this subject suggests fairly strongly that this is not a good hypothesis. If you’re the president of Harvard, you ought to know that if you’re going to shoot your mouth off on the topic.

How dare he! In contrast Gary Becker says:
I discussed earlier the factors determining why far fewer women than men are highly successful in science and other fields. At that time, Larry Summers' controversial statement on this topic was not yet publicly available. It is now, and it is an excellent and balanced statement that should not cause offense to any thinking person, even though some might legitimately disagree...

As Harvard's president, Summers has shown vision, enormous ability, and strength, qualities typically lacking in university presidents, with the exceptions of Edward Levi at Chicago, Gerhard Casper at Stanford, and a few others. If allowed to persist in his endeavors, he will go down as one of the great university presidents of recent decades.

It has seemed to me that this has been a sort of shirts and skins scrum where players were more interested in choosing sides than skillfully playing the game. It was more important to be on the right team, and flash the proper gang sign, than to think about the subject. Indeed, thinking about the subject at all was one of the surest signs of belonging to one of the teams and a sign of apostasy to the other team.

In response to a bald claim of gender differences in mental processes I once said that at the level of brains gender is irrelevant. That was some years ago and there is ever more evidence that this is a mistaken view, but little conclusive evidence about the significance of identified differences. On balance I think I'll play on Becker's team. This is a subject that needs further thought and investigation, if only to remove the stigma of sloppy thinking that currently cloaks it, though I'm coming to suspect that there is more to it than this.

The bulk of Becker's post is on the general subject of university governance and is mistaken in a way that is perhaps relevant to the gender flap.

Competition tends to weed out the inefficient and the ineffective, regardless of whether competing enterprises are private profit -maximizers, as are most business firms, private non-profits, as are many American universities, or public non-profits, as are the majority of universities. In any industry, including the education industry, many different approaches are tried, as in the Robert Hutchins great books approach to undergraduate education at the University of Chicago. Many of these approaches fail, as the great books approach failed because it turned out to be a poor way to teach science, economics, and many other subjects.

The basic effect of competition is that only the successes tend to survive in the long run. What survives in a competitive environment is not perfect evidence, but it is much better evidence on what is effective than attempts to evaluate the internal structure of organizations. This is true whether the competition applies to steel, education, or even the market for ideas.

There is an external, independent measure overlooked here. It may be as Becker claims that US universities compare and compete well with other university systems in the world, however old and prestigious their pedigrees, but how are they doing at the task of educating society to a sufficient degree required by the reality test of owning and operating a planet? Rather less than adequate I'd say, though it isn't obvious how, or even if, they could be improved. Still, using that independent measure rather than restricting judgement to relative success in market competition may be useful. We should seek to do better even if we are the best at present since there are pressing problems that may soon bite us hard.


Yet another mistaken analogy of human systems to "lower" life forms attempts to explain academia in which the professoriate is likened to a slime mold [via T-T Sloth]

Consider the peer review process by which academic publications are vetted. There is no centralized Board of Philosophical Publications to decide where articles should appear. I submit each manuscript to an individual journal -- often to several journals in succession before it is finally accepted. Each journal sends my mansucript to a pair of referees, who are chosen fairly unsystematically from among philosophers who have published articles on related topics, usually in other journals. So my manuscript has to satisfy referees who qualified for the job by having produced manuscripts that satisfied other referees, at other journals, who qualified for the job in the same way. All of these referees are like the cells in a slime mold, sending out very simple signals: "accept", "reject", "revise and resubmit". Yet the result is a concentration of expertise, as "accept" signals are issued by those who received "accept" signals from those who had previously received "accept" signals, and so on...

The danger of external interference in the academy is not that it will destroy universities. Universities are centrally organized structures that can withstand a fair amount of abuse. But universities are valuable primarily as the habitat of academic disciplines, whose self-organizing systems cannot be brought under central command.

In the comments a flaw is noted:
The analogy to slime mold sounds entirely too hopeful, actually. since (at least for philosophy) it's not clear that there is anything analogous to the cold hard fact of survival to form an external check/benchmark for intelligence on the processes in question. One might think that at least for the sciences, cold hard fact (or technological application) constitutes that check/benchmark.
If we lengthen the time frame there is perhaps a "cold hard fact" that will complete the analogy. How are we doing as a species owning and operating a planet? At increasingly more fine grained levels we can trace the effects of even philosophy on social functioning and success. This is a sort of reality check, like survival for slime molds, and there are many indications that the colony is in trouble.

Another defect of the analogy is that there are many slime mold and ant colonies. Failing to consider this and their interactions misses another kind of reality check and a higher level type of meta-organism. Predators as well as enemies need consideration too. What the slime mold argument makes most clear is that the maladies noted by Mark Baurlein in Liberal Groupthink Is Anti-Intellectual aren't just a defect of liberalism:

Such parochialism and alarm are the outcome of a course of socialization that aligns liberalism with disciplinary standards and collegial mores. Liberal orthodoxy is not just a political outlook; it's a professional one. Rarely is its content discussed. The ordinary evolution of opinion -- expounding your beliefs in conversation, testing them in debate, reading books that confirm or refute them -- is lacking, and what should remain arguable settles into surety. With so many in harmony, and with those who agree joined also in a guild membership, liberal beliefs become academic manners. It's social life in a professional world, and its patterns are worth describing.
As Timothy Burke has commented you can substitute any other word for liberalism, such as conservatism, and have the same result. The problem is parochialism, insularity and lack of attention to external reality. Reality has no such problems. It works nights and weekends and knows if you've been bad or good. Accounts will be settled.
Posted by back40 at 04:58 PM | culture

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