Friday, July 14, 2006

Larry Summer Controversy, Year Two (cont.)

I think I've decided to hope that the debate continues indefinitely, with a new salvo fired every 4-6 months provoking discussion and rebuttals. This way we can keep the question and the ideas in everyone's mind for an extended period of time, and maybe actually get somewhere. Anyways, this summer's counter-counter-counter-attack is by Ben Barres, a neuroscientist at Stanford with the best faculty profile photo ever. Ben Barres has a fairly unique perspective on the argument, having spent most of his career as Barbara Barres. He's written a commentary for Nature, titled Does Gender Matter? (subscription, as always, required: email me if you'd like me to send you a pdf). If you just want the interesting anecdotes and money quotes, the Wall Street Journal has a good article on the essay--although you should read the essay itself if you have a chance.

I don't necessarilly agree with how he frames the debate in reference to Summers, Stephen Pinker, and Peter Lawrence--I am, after all, a privileged white male--but I have a fair amount of sympathy for his actual arguments. I find it odd that this is a debate about mathematics and science, and so few of the arguees have bothered to present real data. Barres, on the other hand, even gives us graphs. I'm hoping that this argument is slowly transitioning from discussing the maybe-data (are differences in brain structures significant, are they innate or due to environmental factors, etc.) that we may be able to explain with utility at some point in the future to real-data that uses what we have at our disposal now.

But the best part--totally skipped over by WSJ, of course--is his list of recommendations for fixing the problems in gender and racial imbalance in the sciences:

First, enhance leadership diversity in academic and scientific institutions. Diversity provides a substantially broader point of view, with more sensitivity and respect for different perspectives, which is invaluable to any organization. More female leadership is vital in lessening the hostile working environment that young women scientists often encounter. In addition to women and under-represented minority groups, we must not forget Asians and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered folks. There are enough outstanding scientific leaders in these racial and gender groups that anyone with a will to achieve a diverse leadership in their organization could easily attain it.

Second, the importance of diverse faculty role models cannot be overstated. There is much talk about equal opportunity, but, in practice, serious attention still needs to be directed at how to run fair job searches. Open searches often seem to be bypassed entirely for top leadership positions, just when it matters most — search committees should not always be chaired by men and the committee itself should be highly diverse...

...Third, there should be less silence in the face of discrimination...

...Fourth, enhance fairness in competitive selection processes. Because of evaluation bias, women and minorities are at a profound disadvantage in such competitive selection unless the processes are properly designed. As the revamped NIH Pioneer Award demonstrates, a few small changes can make a significant difference in outcome. By simply changing the procedure so that anyone can self-nominate and by ensuring a highly diverse selection committee, the number of women and minority winners went up to more than 50% from zero...

...Finally, we can teach young scientists how to survive in a prejudiced world. Self-confidence is crucial in advancing and enjoying a research career. From an early age, girls receive messages that they are not good enough to do science subjects or will be less liked if they are good at them. The messages come from many sources, including parents, friends, fellow students and, alas, teachers. When teachers have lower expectations of them, students do less well. But we are all at fault for sending these messages and for remaining silent when we encounter them. Teachers need to provide much more encouragement to young people, regardless of sex, at all stages of training.Occasional words of encouragement can have enormous effects.

But I think it can be easily summed up in another way: we're scientists. We're designing experiments with minimal bias every day of the week. Surely we can devise insitutions and organizations that can operate with minimal bias as well.

(via Washington Monthly)


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