Sunday, January 23, 2005

Torture Reconsidered

For those of us horrified by the torture of prisoners in U.S. custody--back in the news recently during the Gonzales confirmation hearings--a really compelling point of reference is Jonathan Schell's column, which is supposedly going to appear in the next issue of The Nation. He does a good job of making the moral argument (i.e. torture is wrong), as opposed to the practical argument (i.e. torture is ineffective, so we shouldn't use it). I wish all Americans would read this column.

P.S. And on the illegality of the Iraq war, something good (if probably futile) coming out of rural Nebraska (my home state!)

The other gender gap

To follow up on the previous posting (and thanks very much to phip for galvanizing the discussion, by the way), this morning NPR's Weekend Edition ran a short piece on the other gender gap, namely, the fact that American women are now earning 200,000 more bachelor's degrees per year than American men. As with the gender gap in the upper ranks of science, this one also invites biological explanations, apparently: one of the people interviewed opined that "Any mother who has had both sons and daughters knows that the little boys are different from the little girls." His implication, as I understood it, was that little boys are less suited to the kind of steady application that college requires. But this supposedly essential difference between the sexes has emerged only over the past 30 years, since until recently, male students predominated at colleges and universities.

Either evolution proceeds much more quickly than we've been led to believe, or a cultural sea change is at work.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Her brain's not built for tenure

There is something in the way Harvard's president, Lawrence Summers, has been pilloried in the press over the past few days for his comments on women and science that bothers me. What Summers allegedly said (there is no transcript) at a workshop on the under-representation of women in science and engineering is that there may be a social reason apart from outright discrimination that prevents women scientists from rising to the heights of the academy-- perhaps, he suggested, young women with children are unwilling to commit to the 80-hour weeks that young men are willing to undertake, so they don't rise as fast or as far. His other, more inflammatory, explanation is that there may be a biological difference between the sexes that helps account for men's seemingly greater affinity for the hard sciences.

[As an aside, I can't help gleefully thinking about how this episode will send even more able women scientists to dear old Princeton, where the president is herself a distinguished molecular biologist]

Naturally, top women scientists at Harvard and around the country have taken umbrage at Summers' remarks, and rightly so. They have reached the upper echelons of the disciplines in spite of the fact that some influential administrators such as Summers suspect they are constitutionally handicapped. But I'm not sure that the reflexive outrage being reported in the newspaper (with one female professor saying Summers' remarks nauseated her) is useful. I don't think it contributes anything to the conversation about how universities ought to hire and to promote, and worse, it threatens to make Summers look like the open-minded victim of the politically correct, instead of a prejudiced guy who hasn't given a lot of thought to the topic (as I suspect he actually is).

It seems to me that the first thing we need to ask is: What is the purpose of the conversation the conference attendees were having? Do we WANT to increase the proportion of women at the top tiers of academic science, because we place either a social value on equal representation or an intellectual value on the unique modes of thought that women bring to the table (the flip side of the biological difference argument)?

If we do, indeed, think either society or science would benefit from increasing the proportion of women in professional science, then it would probably be a mistake to simply castigate Summers and focus only on overt discrimination. Take Summers' social argument: as a young woman interested in both an academic career and a family, I can well believe that other people like me might want to avoid 80-hour weeks. But if that’s the case, it’s the expectation of 80-hour weeks, and not reasonable young people, that we need to change. Let’s make the structure of an academic career more compatible with non-career pursuits for both men and women. That might help redistribute the burden of family life so that both partners could contribute to it and derive satisfaction from it equally.

The biological difference argument is another matter. Summers’ suggestion on that score seems to be that the status quo reflects natural law and therefore is just fine, thank you very much. Women aren’t terribly good at science, bless their little hearts, and trying to insert any more of them into the ranks of science professors would just contaminate the rarefied air of American science (as it happens, by the way, women are also biologically predisposed to make 70 % of what men make for the same work).

The problem is that there really isn’t any means of assessing “competency” in math and science that doesn’t fall back on the very socially-mediated distinctions whose merit we are trying to assess. How do we know men are better at science? Because most science professors are men. Because more Nobel Laureates in science are men. Because men publish more scientific papers. As if any of those things were a straightforward index of competency! Anyone who’s been anywhere in the vicinity of academic politics can tell you how many other factors (charisma, connections, clarity of writing, trendiness of topic, for starters) factor in to such accomplishments.

Of course, there is our old friend, the standardized test; the way high school boys outscore high school girls on standardized math and science tests is one of the data Summers allegedly drew on to support his claim about biological difference. But according to standardized tests, American schoolkids in general are pretty incompetent at science relative to their peers in other countries. Yet rather than being satisfied that Americans are biologically wired to stink at science, we lament that American kids aren’t being taught as well, that we’re not nurturing a love of math and science in them. And kids in poor neighborhoods, black and white, do worse on standardized tests than kids in rich neighborhoods. Maybe those suckers genetically predisposed to poverty are also genetically predisposed to stupidity?

I can’t think of any way to assess competency in science that is not hopelessly contaminated by social variables, so Summers’ “hypothesis” about biological differences is in its essence untestable. Not very scientific, in other words.

Recommended reading:
1. This Boston Globe article
2. Margaret Rossiter’s Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940 and Women Scientists in America: Before Affirmative Action, 1940-1972.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Bigger House = Better Democracy?

Linked in the title above is an interesting article from the Boston Globe, which I first encountered in this post from Daily Kos. Most democratically elected legislative bodies (including the one to be elected in Iraq under our auspices) have a ratio of about 100,000 citizens to every representative. But in the US, the ratio is more like 675,000/1. Jeff Jacoby proposes (following the wisdom of our founding fathers) making the House of Representatives larger, and therefore more representative. The benefits of smaller constituencies include closer connection between citizens and representatives; elections more local and thus easier for less-funded candidates to compete in; mix of representatives more like social mix of America. A possible downside that Jacoby doesn't mention is that smaller districts might be easier to gerrymander, but it could work the other way too. Sounds like great idea to me, though I won't hold my breath. More discussion of the idea, and some counter proposals, can be found in the Daily Kos post.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Citizens of the Empire

I was in Seattle recently and I stopped in at the anarchist collective bookstore, Left Bank Books, to buy a couple of books--workers collectives deserve support, and this one usually has interesting titles on offer. (An online store, which is linked to in the title of this post, is promised soon.)

I've just finished one of the books: Robert Jensen's Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity. It is not, alas, a work replete with earth-shattering insights. It seems written in haste, and it contains far too many passages nostalgicly retelling episodes of moral awakening in the life of the author--a form of writing sadly prevalent on the Left. But despite its faults, the book does say some things I would really like to hear more people--in politics, in media, in general--talking about.

As the subtitle of his book hints at, Jensen sees dissent against the empire-building policies of the US as a moral imperative, particularly so for US citizens. Jensen, as a dissident against the current administration (and not a big fan of former Democratic administrations, either), urges citizens to publicly confront at every opportunity the ideology of the American empire. He sees in our political discourse three main features of that ideology that work to prevent real discussion and real change of imperial policies: 1) The unchallenged assertion from both the Left and the Right that American is the 'greatest nation on earth'; 2) The call to 'support our troops' regardless of one's political views; and 3) Patriotism. The first of two of these items, I agree, are huge obstacles to change in foreign and domestic policy, and they need to be undercut. I disagree with Jensen, though, that patriotism itself needs to be renounced. I think there is a good patriotism that can be harnessed to drive a progressive political movement, as I've said in previous posts.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Beer and Circus

I just finished reading Murray Sperber's provocative book, _Beer and Circus: How Big Time College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education_ (New York: Holt, 2000). Sperber makes some intriguing linkages among NCAA Division 1-A sports (especially football and basketball), Greek-dominated campus life, alcohol abuse on campus, and dysfunctional mass education at big state universities. Maybe I was ready for this book given the hard year that the traditionally great football team of my alma mater, the University of Nebraska, has suffered. But I think this book could be very useful reading for someone thinking about working at a big sports school. I think Sperber is on target in his critiques, and he doesn't limit his attacks to college sports alone....a faculty reward system dominated by research at the expense of teaching also comes in for a predictable bashing. He does a nice job of drawing some disparate issues together. Sperber made me think more about how much I have been sucked into the college sports culture over the years...I always felt a little disconcerted by all the hype, but now I have a more solid foundation for my misgivings. The book's greatest weaknesses are its lack of serious treatment of race and class issues, which to me should be absolutely central to thinking about this stuff. And I'm not sure if I agree with the idea that research and teaching should be separate jobs. But as a starting point for dealing with some of the realities on the ground, this book is extremely useful.

I have a whole stack of other bedtime reading books ready to go, which I hope to review here as I finish them...including several more on universities and the world of commerce. Also Peter Singer's book on the ethics of globalization and Janet Poppendieck's challenging book on how emergency food programs (food pantries, soup kitchens) have provided a moral safety valve to absolve Americans from having to deal more seriously with issues of poverty, hunger, and structural inequality. Any other suggestions?