Thursday, December 08, 2016

Temerity and Taboo

"Unfortunately, the psychology of taboo is incompatible with the ideal of scholarship, which is that any idea is worth thinking about, if only to determine whether it is wrong." (Steven Pinker)

I've been reviewing the peer-reviewed literature on gender differences as Mary Bryson suggested at the University of Toronto forum. I'll probably have a little more to say about it later, but there's just something I wanted to get down in a blog post before I forget. I obviously can't generalize from a single book review, but the misreading that I came across the other day strikes me as somehow typical. That is, in my experience, this sort of misunderstanding, whether willful or not, is what makes discussion in this area so difficult.

It can be found in a review of Rebecca Jordan-Young's Brain Storm by Jane Callaghan in Feminism & Psychology from 2011. In it, Callaghan brings up a 2005 piece in The New Republic, in which Steven Pinker reflects on the Larry Summers controversy and the science of gender differences. In that piece, says Callaghan, Pinker makes the

somewhat scathing claim that anyone who doesn’t accept the premises of the brain sex view is ‘on a collision course with the findings of science and the spirit of free inquiry’ (Pinker, 2005: 15). In one fell swoop, Pinker dismisses all critique of the dominant view of sex, gender, and sexuality, and all dissenters to this view are relegated to the position of ‘political ideologues’ – a position which makes all scientific critique rather difficult!

I found the comment remarkable because what had led me to this review was Bryson's suggestion that Jordan-Young could be consulted for a "current review of the literature on sex, gender and gender differences". But Jordan-Young's book is clearly a challenge to the current or "dominant" view (as of 2010, it should be noted; I've not yet found a more recent review article by Jordan-Young). As Callaghan puts it,

Jordan-Young suggests that brain organisation research is itself perhaps not particularly scientifically robust. Rather, it encourages an approach to the field of gender, sex, and sexuality that presupposes a particular kind of causality, with the answer to research questions already laid out in the terms of the approach itself.

So, in disagreeing with Bryson (who agrees with Jordan-Young), it would seem Jordan Peterson is merely taking "the dominant view" on a subject. I don't see how he can be simply dismissed for not accepting the conclusions of a critical review of the literature, a minority report, if you will. Peterson may be wrong and Jordan-Young may be right, of course, but surely there is nothing immediately amiss here from a scientific or scholarly point view. Indeed, it's Bryson who suggests Peterson is on some sort of collision course with science, not the other way round. In one fell swoop, if you will.

But that's not the temerity that I'm really after in this post. I was a taken aback when I checked the original context of the Pinker quote. It appears in the final paragraph, which reads, in full:

At some point in the history of the modern women's movement, the belief that men and women are psychologically indistinguishable became sacred. The reasons are understandable: Women really had been held back by bogus claims of essential differences. Now anyone who so much as raises the question of innate sex differences is seen as "not getting it" when it comes to equality between the sexes. The tragedy is that this mentality of taboo needlessly puts a laudable cause on a collision course with the findings of science and the spirit of free inquiry.

Pinker is clearly not "dismiss[ing in one fell swoop] all critique of the dominant view," as Callaghan had claimed. He isn't dismissing anyone at all. He's merely himself critiquing what is becoming an increasingly dominant "mentality", which we might also call an ideology, i.e., a limit to the range of expressible ideas in a discourse. Pinker quite rightly describes this limit as a "taboo" and its observance as a hindrance to science.

Finally, Callaghan's quotation marks notwithstanding, Pinker doesn't use the words "political ideologues" anywhere in his piece. It's true that he's talking about such creatures. But he apparently lacked the temerity to call them such names. The temerity of the Callaghans and Brysons of this world is noted, however.


Jonathan said...

I think there are two separate issues here. One is the idea that men's and women's brains are fundamentally different ( The other that certain capabilities are unevenly distributed between the two sexes.

Thomas said...

I agree that those issues are there. But my concern in this post is, first of all, that Bryson claims Peterson's isn't up to date because he doesn't agree with a critique of the received view and, second, that Callaghan says he dismisses all critics of that view when he is in fact critiquing the taboo against a certain kind of question.

Thomas said...

Correction: I meant "Callaghan says Pinker dismisses all critics of that view when he is in fact critiquing the taboo against a certain kind of question."