Tuesday, February 11, 2014

"Innate Differences" and Ideology as an Obstacle to Truth

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.

-- Lawrence H. Summers (14 Jan. 2005)

9 years ago, Lawrence (“Larry”) Summers, President of Harvard University, openly wondered whether the underrepresentation of women in the sciences could be explained, in part, by differences in ability between the sexes.

The immediate reaction to his remarks was fierce. Nancy Hopkins, a professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the New York Times, "When he started talking about innate differences in aptitude between men and women, I just couldn't breathe because this kind of bias makes me physically ill.”

Others came to Summers’ defense. When asked by the Harvard Crimson whether then-President Summers’ comments were “within the pale of legitimate academic discourse,” Harvard Professor Steven Pinker (a former professor of mine) replied, “Good grief, shouldn’t everything be within the pale of legitimate academic discourse, as long as it is presented with some degree of rigor? That’s the difference between a university and a madrassa.”

Summers, who had endured a series of smaller disputes with faculty during his short tenure at the helm of America’s oldest university, would eventually resign the Presidency, in February 2006.

8 years later, stories of “innate differences” between the sexes continue to stoke controversy. Just this week, two stories—one a 60 Minutes feature on how drugs affect men and women, the other a feature in the Times Magazine concerning whether egalitarian marriages have less sex—once again placed sex differences from and center.

As CBS reported, the FDA recently cut the recommended dose of the popular sleep drug Ambien in half for women because men and women metabolize Ambien very differently, leaving women with more of the drug in their bodies the next morning, and therefore at a greater risk of impaired driving.

Physicians interviewed for the 60 Minutes piece hypothesized that drug studies ignored or failed to even consider gender differences because, in the past, “women’s health” was confined to reproductive issues and breast cancer.

I think this explanation misses the boat. Instead, let me suggest another, more insidious explanation: that in the latter quarter of the 20th century in America (and perhaps the first decade of the 21st), it was unacceptable to even consider the idea that men and women had innate differences. The fear, unspoken but real, was that if studies showed that men and women were different on one metric, what was to keep science from identifying differences between the sexes that made us uncomfortable—that suggested that tendencies typically ascribed to socialization and patriarchy were, in fact, rooted in biology.

This political correctness was so deeply entrenched that what appears common sense in retrospect—the need to study the effect of drugs on both men and women—wasn’t even considered. As Doris Taylor, a leading stem cell expert at Texas Heart Institute in Houston told 60 Minutes, “I am embarrassed to admit that, as a woman, it had never really occurred to me that doing the experiment in male versus female animals would give completely different results.”

The Times story suggests that the decades-long effort to eliminate gender discrimination and make relationships more egalitarian—laudable as it is—may have unintentional negative consequences on the sex lives of heterosexual couples. As Esther Perel, a couples therapist, told the Times, “[T]he values that make for good social relationships are not necessarily the same ones that drive lust…[M]ost of us get turned on at night by the very things that we’ll demonstrate against during the day.”

What Summers’ demise showed and what these latest stories once again raise, is the danger of ideology, in science and in politics. Ideology, as I am defining it, is not the belief in certain goals. Rather, ideology is a rigid adherence to a means to an end—an unyielding belief, for instance, that doing right by the poor means lowering taxes on the super-rich, evidence be damned. To the ideologue, truth is irrelevant. In fact, even a free and earnest search for the truth is viewed as a threat to be condemned.

The truth, however, is precisely what we should seek in determining the course of action best tailored to reach the goals motivating our professions—whether curing disease in medicine, creating wealth in economics, or improving public policy in government. To that end, we must seek out leaders who are willing to change their mind about the best way to achieve our collective goals, rather than shunning these individuals as “flip-floppers” or worse.

As Pinker stated,

[T]he truth cannot be offensive. Perhaps the hypothesis is wrong, but how would we ever find out whether it is wrong if it is “offensive” even to consider it? People who storm out of a meeting at the mention of a hypothesis, or declare it taboo or offensive without providing arguments or evidence, don’t get the concept of a university or free inquiry.

That radical concept—free inquiry—must remain at the heart of the American Experience, not only on our campuses and our labs, but also in our Town Halls, Statehouses, and the hallowed halls of Congress.

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