WOMAN, SUMMERS, PINKER, POLLITT…
According to Katha Pollitt [“Subject to Debate,” Feb. 21], the press has responded to Harvard president Lawrence Summers’s remarks on gender disparities in science by writing, “Women are dumber! Steven Pinker says so!” I’ve been following the press coverage of this event pretty closely and have seen nothing that attributes to me that mad belief. What I did write, in my book The Blank Slate and elsewhere, is that (1) on average, women and men are equal in general intelligence; (2) on average, women are better than men in certain cognitive skills such as verbal fluency, but since these are only averages, it does not mean that all women are better than all men; (3) on average, men are better than women in certain cognitive skills such as mental rotation of 3-D objects, but since these are only averages, it does not mean that all men are better than all women. These conclusions are well established in the literature on gender and cognition, such as the excellent book Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities, by Diane Halpern, the president of the American Psychological Association.
Is it too much to expect even a minimum of accuracy and nuance when it comes to this issue?
New York City
My characterization of press coverage was clearly humorous and satirical, not a literal summary, in seven words, of the oceans of blather swirling around Summers’s bumptious remarks–remarks that Pinker has been frequently quoted as supporting. Obviously, averages do not tell us anything definite about each individual member of the set (although, come to think of it, if women are, on average, superior to men in verbal fluency, shouldn’t Harvard’s language and literature departments be crammed with tenured women?). Yet general impressions of group capabilities do affect the way individuals are treated and evaluated. That is how stereotypes work. I’m sure the Harvard Medical School interviewer who told my classmate in 1971 that “women can’t be doctors” knew that women doctors existed. He was making a judgment about an individual based on his sense of probability–a judgment that was spectacularly wrong, as negative judgments about women’s abilities have historically been.
Actually, the more relevant of Pinker’s ideas about gender and intelligence is his much-quoted statement that evolution produces “more geniuses, more idiots” in men. In other words, the reason there are fewer women at the highest levels of math and science is not because of social factors like discouragement, discrimination, bias–to the existence of which a mountain of research attests–but because there are fewer women at the highest levels of intelligence. It’s not exactly “women are dumber!”–it’s more like women are more likely to get a B+ and men to get D’s or A’s. But if you’re looking only for A’s and believe that most are men, you’ll focus your efforts–as teacher, mentor, hiring committee–on them.
Someday we may know whether outstanding ability is distributed in this way. I am disturbed that Pinker apparently believes it explains the current tenure picture at Harvard, an institution that has been hostile to women as equals since its inception.
Re Sharon Lerner’s “Post-Roe Postcard” [Feb. 7]: As a physician, I am terrified by the situation in Mississippi and every other state where legislators are dismantling women’s reproductive rights. Even though we live under the supposed protections of Roe v. Wade, the reality for women in many parts of our country is that abortion is simply not available. When abortion is not accessible, women’s health and lives are in jeopardy.
Roughly 1.3 million women–our mothers, our sisters, our daughters, our friends–undergo an abortion every year in the United States. Despite the stigma and the legal and logistic barriers, a huge number of women still choose to end their unwanted pregnancies for a variety of medical and personal reasons. As our federal government and many states move toward recriminalizing abortion, robbing more women of their right to plan their families, I worry that some of my patients will wind up in desperate straits–pregnant with nowhere safe to turn. This is the very situation that led women, in the days before Roe (and before states like New York and California reformed their abortion laws), to risk their lives by undergoing illegal abortions.
Recently, lawmakers in Wyoming introduced legislation that would impose a mandatory twenty-four-hour waiting period and force abortion patients to receive biased counseling. Already enforced in many states, these laws delay the provision of a medical service that women and their doctors have decided they need, usually after lengthy deliberation. Introducing this bill, Wyoming Representative Keith Gingery said, “Personally, I would love it if they decided not to have an abortion.”
This one sentence unveils a core strategy of the antichoice movement. These legislators impose their own moral judgments on women they don’t even know by insidiously chipping away at the laws that protect the right to abortion. It is the poorest and most vulnerable women who suffer the most from restrictive antiabortion laws, just as in the days before abortion was legalized. Lerner’s analysis of the circumstances in Mississippi serves as stark proof that even with the protections of Roe still in place, women’s reproductive health is slipping dangerously out of the hands of women and their doctors and into the seats of state legislatures.
SUSIE BALDWIN, MD, MPH
Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health
We have received questions about how readers might help the last remaining abortion clinic in Mississippi, profiled by Sharon Lerner. The Jackson Women’s Health Organization can receive checks directly at 2903 North State Street, Jackson, MS 39216. Of the money received 100 percent will go into a fund to help poor women pay for services. These donations are not tax deductible. Those who wish to make a tax-deductible donation can send checks to the FMF National Clinic Access Project, 1600 Wilson Blvd., Suite 801, Arlington, VA 22209. Half of those donations will go to a special fund created by the Jackson Women’s Health Organization to help poor women in Mississippi obtain abortions. The other half will go to the Feminist Majority’s National Clinic Access Project’s work with federal, state and local law enforcement and community leaders.
In noting Seymour Melman’s death [“Passings,” Jan. 24], a salient fact should be added. At the height of the cold war in the late 1950s, Melman founded the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE), an early grassroots lobby to end the nuclear arms race, leading to the first nuclear test ban treaty in 1963.
I remember Melman as kind, funny, articulate. As an academic during the Vietnam War, he asked who profited from the war system on which the US government spent two-thirds of its annual budget. Military and corporate sectors benefited, he said, but war was now obsolete to defend the nation.
Melman was prescient in observing in the 1960s that chemical and biological warfare techniques created the possibility of a “poor man’s atom bomb,” undercutting the nuclear monopoly of the materially wealthiest nations. “Modern military forces, both nuclear and conventional, can be used to threaten or destroy, but no longer to defend or win a politically meaningful victory,” he asserted. Decrying the squandering of this wealth, he calculated that the $30 billion being spent on war in Vietnam alone was more than the entire capital fund for worldwide economic development.
Today, with even greater human and environmental sacrifices being made to war, Melman’s mantra rings especially true: “The remaining military strategy for improving the military security of nation states–large and small–is now disarmament.”
PALESTINIAN ELECTION LACUNA
In “Why Marwan Did Not Run” [Jan. 10/17], I’m perplexed as to why Graham Usher said nothing about the candidacy of the other Barghouti, Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi (a distant cousin of Marwan Barghouti). Is The Nation part of yet another “media lockdown” on stories it doesn’t want the US public to know about? On one of the last critical days of campaigning, Mustafa Barghouthi was blocked from crossing the Erez checkpoint in Gaza due to its closure but given no reason for the closure. Buried deep in a January 6 New York Times article the closure was mentioned: A Palestinian had attacked and damaged the checkpoint; it was closed for repairs. The US media, including The Nation, should be informing its readers about the Palestinian candidates and their election campaigns so we can make a fair assessment as to the legitimacy of these elections. Much is at stake–the prospects of a lasting peace in the Middle East, and peace in the world.
MARJOLEIN VAN DER VEEN
I said nothing about the candidacy of Mustafa Barghouthi, who came in a distant but respectable second to Mahmoud Abbas, because my brief for the article was to look at the divisions in Fatah thrown up by Arafat’s death and the struggle for the succession. Fatah is the dominant political force in Palestinian politics, and it was clear that whoever won the support of the movement would win the presidency.
As for Barghouthi’s strong showing, I would make two comments: First, it is too soon to say whether the support he received represents a new force in Palestinian politics, between Fatah’s nationalism and Hamas’s Islamism. With Marwan’s withdrawal–and Hamas’s decision to boycott the poll–the view of many Palestinians was that Abbas was a shoo-in (one of the reasons for the relatively low turnout). Thus, many Palestinians may have voted for Barghouthi in the luxury of knowing he stood no chance of defeating Abbas.
Second, polls routinely confirm that 20 to 30 percent of Palestinians show no preference for either Hamas or Fatah but do subscribe to the values and policies advocated by Barghouthi–a secular democratic movement committed to domestic reform and a two-state solution based on Israel’s full withdrawal to the 1967 borders, Palestinian sovereignty in East Jerusalem and a just resolution of the Palestinian refugees’ right of return based on UN resolutions.
It is not yet clear whether Barghouthi is the voice for that constituency. It will become clear with the Palestinian parliamentary elections in July, should he and his National Democratic movement contest them. But it is clear that such a constituency wants a voice.