Friday, August 12, 2005

Pinker vs. Spelke

Last night, I had the pleasure of watching this debate with a group of friends. It was good in two ways: (1) the content itself, and (2) discussing the thoughts of those attending (oh, and that people actually came :P).

From the link you can read or download the two-hour discussion; I recommend it. The issue, popularized at the time because of remarks from Harvard's president, was 'Why are less women in certain high-level professions' such as engineering or mathematics. Pinker went more the 'there are genetic differences between the sexes and men are more variable' while Spelke posited 'discrimination and bias' as the main factors that created the situation.

Pinker's presentation was more structured and he was a better speaker, if only because Spelke kept stepping away from her main mic, making it annoying to have the volume fluctuate. (Another technical point is that the filming could have been a bit better.)
I always think it is great to have two smart people with good arguments disagree because the 'real' answer is likely in the middle. They both had some 'damaging' points, and I felt myself being lead towards Pinker's point (he went first) but then Spelke's. His use of meta-analyses and statistics versus her use of studies examining perception of behaviour/ability based on sex (children and prof CVs). I wish they addressed potential historical/evolutionary reasons for differences, as well as specifically detailed why they each presented the relatively opposing point with different sources of data.

The other main issue touches on my apparently idealistic oratorical standards. Pinker and Spelke were not poor speakers, but she said 'uh' quite a bit during her presentation, and Pinker said 'uh' quite a bit during the 'rebuttal' period. This is the cream of the crop. Harvard professors, confident to debate publicly about a controversial subject, who have been studying psychology for over 30 years. I would seem that things are not what I thought they could be (or maybe things just are not like tv). So it goes.

It was stimulating discussion regarding a complex issue that cannot be intellectually delineated in only 120 minutes. Good stuff.


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