A Question Everyone's Afraid to Ask

Nature Doesn't Care About Fairness. That's Society's Job.

Posted Nov 07, 2017

The Voorhes/Psychology Today
Source: The Voorhes/Psychology Today

You can't play 20 Questions with nature and win, the cognitive scientist Allen Newell famously argued in a 1973 paper. He was critiquing research that is bottom-up and framed in binary terms. No matter how beautifully replicated, discreet experiments will never yield a coherent, big-picture understanding of how the mind works.

Today we possess a paradigm that boasts real explanatory power. Evolutionary psychology addresses profound questions about human nature, including why men and women, on average, operate with somewhat different cognitive toolkits. David P. Schmitt has spent his career charting this landscape and shares important findings in “Sculpted by Evolution.”

Sounds great, right? Except that 45 years after Newell fretted about the future of psychology, the meta-question in the field is no longer, “What questions are useful?” It is “What questions are off limits?” Increasingly, the answer is: “Any inquiry that makes people uncomfortable or interferes with their sense of how the world should work.” Psychological sex differences rooted in biology are now in this camp.

If nature does not play 20 Questions, then evolution surely does not subscribe to the moralistic fallacy—the belief that what ought to be, is. There is no human population on earth in which cognitive traits and abilities are distributed equitably. This statement should not be controversial.

Nor should people be sanctioned for questioning cultural scripts surrounding
sex differences. In the year 2017, it can be said with absolute certainty that women
still experience workplace discrimination of all sorts. But the canard that they earn 77 cents for every dollar earned by men is false. When social scientists control for choice of college major and occupation, as well as for years in the workforce, the gap shrinks to just 5 to 7 cents. The most important variable appears to be driven by a sex difference that psychology can elucidate: On average, women gravitate toward occupations that don’t pay top dollar.

Between the Scylla and Charybdis of biology blindness and statistical murkiness is a culture awash in outrage. People want to believe that the sexes are mind twins, because having identical abilities is the only way to guarantee equal treatment. By this faulty logic, presupposing that men and women are cognitively identical means that women’s underrepresentation in fields such as engineering and physics must derive from social forces alone.

Perhaps the one fact we can all agree on is that nature doesn’t care about fairness. That’s society’s job. America’s greatest cultural leap in the last century is the refusal to discriminate based on race, sex, or creed. To acknowledge biological differences is not to discriminate on that basis, nor should it ever justify so doing. For that reason alone, no question should ever be off limits.