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.