Some people act as if they believe that disparately populated occupations signify an underlying evil (unless, of course, those same people see the disparity as one favoring a group of persons they view as ongoing victims of invidious discrimination).
As these people see things, it is harmful even to suggest that research can help us to find out if the reason(s) for a given disparity can be isolated. Yet, learning the “why” of a disparity is what will allow us to determine whether or not, and to what extent the disparity is the result of conduct deemed wrongful, or if it is the result of something else, such as the individual preferences of the under-represented population.
Each time this kind of research is suggested, it is met with meanly-stated opposition. And, notwithstanding that the suggestions are always enshrouded in the usual “I’m not a (sexist) (racist) (etc.)” apologetic cover language, those same members of the opposition seem desperate to avoid a scientific assay of the etiological rationale of the members of the under- or over-included populations.
How to regard historic messengers has been examined at length. Among the better-known ancient messengers is Pheidippides, who 2495 years ago ran about 26 miles to Athens to deliver his message that the Athenians had bested the Persians in battle, and who then died of exhaustion. His feat has been honored for thousands of years by Olympic and hundreds of other worldwide races that symbolically cover the distance of his return from the Battle of Marathon. That honor will continue as far into the future as one can imagine.
But, in the arena of thoughts and ideas, wrapped within every new hunch or thought is a threatened overthrow of accepted social order or of the asserted bases of reigning power. The history of Philosophy,” as Professor Joseph P. White wrote in the Prologue to his Philosophy: Adventures on the Frontiers of Ignorance, “has often, unfortunately, been marked by a propensity on the part of the populace to either literally or figuratively, ‘kill the messenger.’ This point could be readily illustrated beginning with Socrates in the fourth century BC and continuing to Bertrand Russell in the twentieth century AD.”
And so it is now with Larry Summers, Harvard’s president, whose terrifying message was to ditch the usual suspects (read: assumptions) and do the research necessary to figure out the real reason(s) for the gender disparity among the math, science and engineering faculty.
The perceived threat in the Summers message is threefold:
First, it may turn out that the reason for the disparity has little to do with educational or employment mistreatment of females. (And, ask yourselves this: if the disparity is attributable to nothing blameworthy, is there, nonetheless, something wrong with it? Be careful, here, and keep in mind that turnabout is fair play.)
Second, the research may show that there are, in fact, differences between men and women, as groups, and that among those differences are their perceptions of the relative attractiveness of teaching college-level math, science and engineering courses.
(Note that, so far, none of this posits that one gender is smarter or in any way better than the other.)
And, third, it may turn out that, for whatever reason(s), comparatively more men than women reach the proficiency level for under- and post-graduate instruction in these areas of education. (We are, of course, already aware of brain usage differences between males and females.)
The adverse reactions to Summers’s let’s-do-the-research message have been more political than academic. They indicate a lack of confidence that the research result would show the primary cause to be discrimination against, and unfair treatment of women. Bear in mind that were that the outcome, the push for immediate equalization of numbers would be immense and overwhelming. The anti-Summers crowd will push for that result anyway, the lack of supporting empirical data (that may have been derived from the research, were there to be any) notwithstanding.
The battle here is not only between truth (let-the-chips-fall-where-they-might research) and the politics of academe (equality of result is what is most important), but, more disastrously, between champions of freedom to think originally and abstractly, on one hand, and, on the other, oppressors, who chill and stifle ideas that they think might upset their applecarts.
Each time freedom and the quest for truth are overridden by politics and oppression, the fabric of free thought and academic freedom thins out. Once that fabric becomes threadbare, all that is right about ourselves begins to seep out and evanesce.
The prospect of intellectual incest and the inevitable destruction of reason that will follow is again at hand. We shall see if our natural survival inclination continues to be strong enough to withstand the natural political inclinations of getting and spending that lead us to lay waste our powers and forsake honest appraisal.