The cat i' the adage

"The growth of knowledge depends entirely on disagreement" Karl Popper (1902 - 1994)

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Are women worse at mathematics?

Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard University, has caused a stir by claiming in a conference speech that women are innately disposed to be poorer than men at mathematics and science.

This is surely an empirical matter that cannot be settled by the strength of feminist grievance. Walking out of the lecture, as many did, is not a suitable response.

It wouldn't surprise me if the sexes had different cognitive strengths and weaknesses as a result of the different roles determined for them by nature and, ultimately, reproductive advantage. We are accustomed to differences in physical stature and prowess, and also differences in temperament which are less controversial, so why should it be deemed outside the realm of reasonable enquiry to suggest intellectual differences? The hunter male probably had greater need of high quality spatial reasoning than his female gatherer counterpart. It is not difficult to imagine, therefore, the process of natural selection favouring the development of certain mathematical aptitudes in the male over the female human being.

As social factors which historically have stood in the way of women become less pronounced, it becomes more difficult to account for their underrepresentation in the fields of mathematics and science without bringing innate disposition into the argument, though, as I have already said, this is not a matter to be settled without empirical evidence.

My old logic tutor, John Lucas, used to claim that anyone could follow a logical argument except women and politicians. That caused a walkout of females students, but I have always imagined that this was what he had wanted.

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