New Technology Opens Up Science

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Recently, LRC
readers were directed to an
article
about a controversial essay that was rejected by Science
Magazine. The essay, "Men,
Women, and Ghosts in Science"
by Peter Lawrence, was ultimately
published by the Public Library of Science's (PLoS) Biology
journal. The subject of Dr. Lawrence's essay is the biological differences
between men and women, and why he believes this is related to their
relative presence in prestigious jobs, especially the low percentage
of female professors in science. The essay takes on two touchy subjects:
inherent differences between the sexes and the role of women in
the job market. It should not be surprising, therefore, that one
of the top scientific journals got nervous about printing such an
essay.

Avoidance

So why didn't
PLoS shy away from such controversy? It is unlikely that
the readers, reviewers or editors of PLoS agree with Dr.
Lawrence on many of the points he makes in his essay. In fact, Mike
Eisen, a co-founder of PLoS, disagrees with Dr. Lawrence on most.
Dr. Eisen says, "To argue that [the disparity at the top of
the academic hierarchy] is the result of some kind of innate/biological
difference, and to therefore accept a male-dominated scientific
community, is ridiculous." He is more inclined to attribute
this disparity to society.

According to
the Telegraph, Science decided not to publish the
essay because it was neither novel enough nor persuasive enough
considering the apparent saturation of essays on the topic. Additionally,
the editor-in-chief of Science said it did not "lead to a clear
strategy about how to deal with the gender issue.” Hemai Parthasarathy,
editor-in-chief of PLoS Biology, agrees that Dr. Lawrence
did not have a clear strategy towards a solution to the gender issue.
Dr. Parthasarathy adds that she thinks there is much more to say
on "this extremely complicated subject." Apparently the
editors disagree on whether the presence of previous opinionated
reviews on the topic of gender inequality means the debate is now
old hat, or just heating up.

Gary North
has written on this site about the role of new technology, especially
the internet, in business (click
here for a recent one
). PLoS has taken advantage of the
very low cost of publishing on the internet in an attempt to compete
with the likes of Science. Instead of worrying about (Yikes!)
illegal photocopying and (Horrors!) multiplying electronic PDF files,
they put all content online free of charge to anyone, and look in
other places for money. It's too soon to tell if their model will
work, but it seems to appeal to many professors, especially in a
time of budget cuts for public university libraries (resulting in
fewer university subscriptions to journals). Whereas Science
may be more wary of controversy after the cloning scandal, PLoS
is presumably welcoming publicity to try to win this race. In this
context, Dr. Lawrence's theory that Science's official reasons for
rejection were lame may be hitting the nail on the head.

What controversy?

Earlier I stated
that "Men, Women, and Ghosts in Science" addresses two
touchy subjects. Discussions of these topics tend to be controlled
by political correctness and emotions, not reasoned argument. I
think this is a terrible mistake.

Is there a
gender disparity in prominent positions at companies and universities?
Of course. For example, the percentage of women professors in the
Molecular and Cell Biology Department at UC Berkeley is just under
22%. Keep in mind that biology has historically been the most women-friendly
of the hard sciences, and Berkeley has a reputation for social consciousness.
The disparity for other science and engineering disciplines is even
greater.

Is gender disparity
a problem? Science and PLoS agree that it is, but
problems are relative ideas. In order to have a problem, there must
be a goal that is not met. While the stated goal is an equal number
of men and women throughout the work force, what the academic community
(and others who profess concern) should ask is: Why is this goal
desirable?

Both Dr. Lawrence
and Dr. Eisen feel that the average feminine traits can be the foundation
for a great scientist and mentor. The average masculine traits are
easier to test for, so the disparity is propagated. This may or
may not be valid, but the point is that lip service to equality
is just that, while deciding whether equality is actually beneficial
is what should be discussed. It is accepted by many as a truth that
equality is desired. Dr. Lawrence doesn't disagree, he just cuts
deeper and hits some nerves along the way. This topic is the less
controversial of the two, yet it is surprisingly absent from discussions
of gender disparity.

The question
of why there is gender inequality is where feelings really start
to get hurt. It is difficult to differentiate between what effect
biology has on a person compared to environment. To address this
question, one must drift away from biology and dive into the social
sciences. We may never know the answer, but the overwhelming opinion
in academia is summed
up well
by Steven Pinker of Harvard:

the under-representation
of women among tenure-track faculty in elite universities in physical
science, math, and engineering … As with many issues in psychology,
there are three broad ways explain this phenomenon. One can imagine
an extreme “nature” position: that males but not females have
the talents and temperaments necessary for science. Needless to
say, only a madman could take that view. The extreme nature position
has no serious proponents.

While Dr. Lawrence
speculates on this phenomenon, and comes close to being a "madman",
his essay is not a presentation of facts observed through scientific
research. Essays in scientific journals, although they may be peer-reviewed
as "Men, Women…" was, are simply a presentation of opinion.
Dr. Parthasarathy says this essay was published, in part, because
it was "opinionated" and that the goal of such a publication
is to discuss "issues that are important to the scientific
community" as well as the general public. To that end, PLoS
succeeded. Science has merely succeeded in promoting a sad
trend in public debate: dismiss inconvenient opinions by ignoring
them.

This author
declares that she has a conflict of interest. She is a graduate
student in biology, hopes to one day be a professor, and has published
an article in a PLoS journal, but not in Science.

February
18, 2006

Kathryn
Muratore [send her mail]
is working on her PhD in biology at the University of California
Berkeley.

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