Remember when Larry Summers (then President of Harvard) stirred up a lot of anger by suggesting that the gender gap in science was due to innate differences in ability between men and women? I was mad about his comments for reasons that had nothing to do with sexism or (to use a phrase that has long ago transitioned to meaninglessness) political correctness; what bothered me was his crime against empiricism.
Summers’s claim was an empirical one, that is, one that’s amenable to testing via data. Not surprisingly, lots of people have looked at it over the years and tried to bring data to bear to answer it. Summers was speculating with pristine ignorance of this, which is just plain irresponsible. Speculating in the absence of data is a bit like sexual fantasizing: it’s fun, and everyone does it, but you really shouldn’t talk about it in public.* This is especially true if you’re a high-profile figure speaking in a public forum about a controversial subject.
Anyway, that’s all ancient history now. Why bring it up? Because I just saw some results from a new study that bears on this question. It turns out that the level of unconscious stereotyping about gender and science in a country is a good predictor of the gender gap in students’ scientific performance in that country. That’s not what Summers’s hypothesis would predict. Thanks to Sean Carroll for drawing my attention to this.
* Joke stolen from John Baez, who used it in a completely different context, if memory serves.