Amartya Sen on Women in Science
By David Henderson
As I mentioned in a post last week, I was at a Liberty Fund seminar in Indianapolis last weekend at which we discussed Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice. Before that, I had read only sections of his books and his articles but hadn’t read such a long book by him before this one. My bottom line is that Sen, at times, has a passive/aggressive style that obscures rather than illuminates. Take, for example, his discussion of women in science.
Sen considers two alternate explanations. One, that seems to be his preferred explanation, is that the lack of women scientists is self-reinforcing because the lack of women scientists discourages women from entering the various scientific professions. Then he considers the second explanation, writing:
The observation that there are few women scientists in a particular society may not be at all mistaken, even when the conclusion that women are no good at science–when drawn from that positional observation–would be entirely erroneous.
Notice two things about this passage. First, Sen doesn’t state the position correctly. I don’t know any serious observer who claims “women are no good at science.” The speculation of Lawrence Summers and others was that fewer women than men are good at science. See the difference?
Second, Sen claims that a conclusion drawn from a “positional observation” is erroneous just because it is drawn from an observation. I happen to agree with him that the conclusion that “women are no good at science” is erroneous. But you can’t conclude that, because a reasoning process is incorrect (I agree that it’s incorrect), that the conclusion reached on the basis of that faulty reasoning is incorrect.