David R. Henderson  

Amartya Sen on Women in Science

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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.

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COMMENTS (10 to date)
Evan writes:

Sen neglects a third explanation, which is that less women like science. That is, women and men on average both have the same potential to be good at science, but more women choose not to use that potential because they'd rather be doing something else.

I do agree that Sen displays very sloppy reasoning. But it does seem to me that a conclusion reached with faulty reasoning should be given a bit less weight. Of course if someone uses faulty reasoning that doesn't conclusively disprove their conclusion, but the fact that their reasoning is faulty means that there is less evidence for that conclusion than there was before. So if a conclusion is reached by faulty reasoning you shouldn't dismiss it, like Sen does, but you should downgrade its probability to whatever it was before you heard that reasoning.

Jim Rose writes:

occupational choice in response to expected absences to have children might have rated a mention.

the human capital explantion is well-known.

James writes:

I thought the view Sen lampoons here was still more nuanced: There are fewer women in both tails of the distribution of cognitive skill. This is why women are underrepresented in both top academic positions and custodial work.

David R. Henderson writes:

Evan writes,

So if a conclusion is reached by faulty reasoning you shouldn't dismiss it, like Sen does, but you should downgrade its probability to whatever it was before you heard that reasoning.

That's not true. You name the correct conclusion and there is an infinite number of bad arguments that can get you there. So a bad argument for a position says nothing about whether there are good arguments for it.

quadrupole writes:

I suspect it may also be because science is a pretty awful career choice if you are actually smart enough to pursue it.

I mean, who wouldn't want to spend 4 years in college, 7 years in grad school, 6 years doing postdocs, 7 years gunning for tenure, only to risk being told when you are 42 that you have no future? Oh, even if you *do* win, and wind up with tenure, you will probably have to live in a university town in the middle of nowhere. And you have to move at every transition mentioned above, which makes it hard to make a marriage work out. And you are basically being paid less than minimum wage during grad school, and less than your similarly intellectually endowed friends made straight out of college through the postdoc years. Oh... and your salary tops out at about what most of your engineering friends made 5 years into their career (while you are still making less than minimum wage in grad school).

I don't think the real question is why aren't more woman going into science... it's why *anyone* is going into science. Women are just to smart on average to put themselves through that.

PrometheeFeu writes:


David's point was that just because you can find a faulty way to get at a conclusion does not undermine the conclusion itself. If you want to undermine a conclusion through its reasoning, you need to show that the strong reasoning for that conclusion is faulty. Otherwise, all conclusions can be discredited easily. If someone was to argue that the Earth must be round because spheres are more perfect shapes and nature prefers perfect shapes, that would be a strike against that person's reasoning ability but would say nothing as to the credibility of the theory that the earth is round.

PrometheeFeu writes:

Woops published too early...

@Evan: I think what you meant to say was that if the best arguments for a position are faulty, this undermines the credibility of the position. And that is quite sensible, but also not what Sen was doing here.

PrometheeFeu writes:

@quadrupole: I think it's pretty clear that people who go into science do so for the non-monetary rewards. I have a large number of friends (some much smarter than me) who are currently studying for their PhD and making 1/4 what I make. But they also very much enjoy themselves. (Well, not all the time to be fair) Also, compared to most other professions, academics have an amazing degree of freedom. Do you know many professions where you can take 6 months to a year off at full pay to pursue the research topic of your choice at your own pace? Also, don't underestimate how much money you can make from consulting on the side. Or my favorite: Use government funding to do your research, then put in 6-12 months of work with your own or investor money to polish-up the project into a product which you get to patent and make large amounts of money on. If you are really smart, science can be quite lucrative.

quadrupole writes:


I absolutely get going into science for the non-monetary rewards. I was on that track. But at some point you realized you can't take the punishment anymore.

And I have a lot of friends who stuck out the PhD route and have done the academic dance... at the end of the day it made them all miserable. They can't start families due to lack of stability, they have *way* less freedom than I do in industry (because their gerbil wheel is oddly much more constrained), they are treated worse by their institutions (seriously... why does it take an Ivy League college 3 months to reimburse you for your travel expenses when every corporate employer I've ever dealt with just hands you an AMEX so it never comes out of your pocket).

They work *way* harder to get resources assigned to their projects than I do, incredible effort goes into grant writing and all kinds of other BS that isn't really research. It's all kind of soul sucking.

Oh... and they almost always end up living in places they hate when they do finally get a faculty appointment. (Small nowhere towns).

Will a small number win the technology transfer lottery? Sure... but your odds are better working the startup game in tech... better odds of winning, faster payoffs, less BS.

Again, I'm not speaking about this from a vacuum... this is what I saw getting on this track in Physics, and watching the progress of the careers of my cohort walking through the whole process. The folks who left ended up *much* better off in all dimensions, and *much* happier.

Kyle writes:

I'm with quadrupole. People aren't looking hard enough at the possibility that the hard sciences just aren't as rewarding as they're sold to be, in any sense (monetary or otherwise).

There are career choices that offer a bigger net present value and can be just as rewarding, or more, on other levels for most people. Health is a good example of something that it perceived as being personally rewarding, but can also be lucrative.

So why work you butt off to try and break into a male-dominated field you don't like more than the alternative but that will also pay you less?

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