It is clear that Harvard President Larry Summers has hit a nerve, yet again. It is far less clear why reactions have been so strong and often so disappointing to those of us who believe in science. Let us know the truth, whatever it is. If women have less “intrinsic aptitude” for science than men, and no one—not even Larry Summers—is arguing that such a fact has been established, then we should know about it. Choices are better made on the basis of facts than ignorance or fiction. To my mind, the key overlooked point is that such a fact would have almost no relevance to the values most of us believe in.
Equal treatment under the law and in public policy has nothing to do with whether the average intelligence or other indicators of aptitude or virtue of women is the same as men, or whether the same is true for blacks, whites, Asians, Jews, Arabs, Christians, Moslems, etc, or for gays or straights. We are each individuals, not averages. Our public policy and the personal beliefs of most of us are based upon the morality and advantage of dealing with individuals rather than classes of one sort or another. Whatever the averages might turn out to be—and why should we be afraid to know?—currently available evidence clearly establishes a very large dispersion of traits within each group and a very large overlap with all other groups.
Such principles are expressed and upheld by governments only when they are broadly believed by the governed (in democracies), or by enlightened rulers, or, as in our case of a constitutional democracy, when enlightened leaders in the contemplative environment of a constitutional convention imbed such principles in a constitution that limits what majorities may do. Fortunately, in free market economies self-interest works in favor of such principles. Profit minded employers want the best employees for the least cost.
It is human nature to economize and conserve in various ways. It is part of being efficient. Economizing on the gathering of information is but one of the many ways we prioritize the use of our time. We often develop impressions of people or groups of people (say Southern Baptists) on the basis of partial information. We often rely on the views of others we trust. It would take more of our time than it is worth to gather ALL of the facts. Biases and prejudices are perpetrated for some time for these reasons even among the good hearted.
If women are being discriminated against in the market place, presumably because of incorrect perceptions of their productivity, they will tend to earn less for the same work. If this is the case, it is economically advantageous for an employer to hire them. Thus there is an economic incentive for firms to look beyond the stereotypes (or averages) for individuals whose talents may not be fully appreciated yet in the market place. Not all employers will bother to do so, but those who do so will profit at the expense of those who discriminate. Over time more profitable firms tend to grow more rapidly than less profitable ones. If employers are forced to pay women the same wages as men when they believe they are less productive, fewer women will be hired until such time as broadly held prejudices are over come.
Open and honest debate about such issues is another way of advancing the truth and overcoming prejudice. In my opinion Larry Summers has contributed to that goal and the sometimes hysterical reactions to his raising legitimate scientific questions have not.