Explaining non-facts

Note: this has been corrected in response to a good point by Anon Ymous.

A few days ago, reader Jeff mailed us a link to recent address by Roy (oh dear) Baumeister to the American Psychological Association, entitled “Is There Anything Good About Men?” , a long tedious paper filled with old standbys about how men have evolved to be the explorers and empire builders and women have evolved to be basically cuddly lumps who reproduce the species. We all looked at it and agreed that we didn’t have the time or energy to bother with it.  After all, it’s basically the same old rot we’d been hearing forever.  And who would care?  

Well, apparently lots of people.  John Tierney has written a column on it for the NY Times, and it’s now one of their most emailed stories.  So we’ve got to deal with it.   

Briefly: Baumeister’s argument is an argument to the best explanation. It gives us a “fact” and then tries to explain that “fact”, by invoking other “facts” and a lot of speculation. There are lots of ways such arguments can go wrong. Baumeister’s goes wrong at the start. The “fact” being explained is that, worldwide, most of the people at both the top and the bottom of the pile (in terms of wealth and power) are men. He “establishes” this by invoking stats on prisons and homelessness, to show that men dominate not just the top but also the bottom of the heap. Unfortunately, this neglects all the data on the feminization of poverty, which shows the claim to be simply false. 

No good will come of an argument to the best explanation attempting to explain something that isn’t even true. But just the same, what a remarkable load of rubbish along the way!

Two examples:

(1) We should expect inequalities of wealth, because men just work harder (Baumeister): 

Likewise, I mentioned the salary difference, but it may have less to do with ability than motivation. High salaries come from working super-long hours. Workaholics are mostly men. (There are some women, just not as many as men.) One study counted that over 80% of the people who work 50-hour weeks are men. That means that if we want to achieve our ideal of equal salaries for men and women, we may need to the principle of equal pay for less work.             

Yeah, that proves it alright. Women are just lazy. Let’s not consider all the work women do in the home, and all the discrimination they face on the job.  Anyone heard of glass ceilings?  Also, one might question the thought that employees who work longer hours are better– one reason for long hours might be inefficiency. Most importantly, perhaps, there’s no attempt to look at why women and men might work different hours– just an assumption that it’s “motivation”.

(2) Baumeister again:

Giving birth is a revealing example. What could be more feminine than giving birth? Throughout most of history and prehistory, giving birth was at the center of the women’s sphere, and men were totally excluded. Men were rarely or never present at childbirth, nor was the knowledge about birthing even shared with them. But not very long ago, men were finally allowed to get involved, and the men were able to figure out ways to make childbirth safer for both mother and baby. Think of it: the most quintessentially female activity, and yet the men were able to improve on it in ways the women had not discovered for thousands and thousands of years.            

Ah, yes, men were *excluded*– terrible discrimination they suffered there.   If only they’d had all the opportunities open to them that women did.  And look how brilliantly things improved when male doctors got involved:  as Digivordig has informed me, death rates in wards staffed by male doctors were much higher than in those staffed by female midwives, until the difference was noticed and doctors improved their hygeine practices. And there’s just a teeny bit of disagreement, still, over such male innovations as stirrups for deliveries, episiotomies, etc etc. (For one dissenting voice among many see here.) Even fans of medicalization (and I’m not really an opponent myself) just might want to consider the idea that the advancement of science was more important than sex differences.

The NY Times should be truly embarrassed to have one of its columnists endorsing such nakedly sexist ranting. Write and tell them so.  (Many thanks to Stoat, JJ and Digivordig for their help on this one.)

cfp: Hannah Arendt

From a message to swip-l:

The Departments of Philosophy and Comparative Literature at Emory University will be hosting the second independent conference for the Hannah Arendt Circle, March 28-30, 2008.

Papers on any aspect of Arendt’s work, as well as studies, critiques, and applications of her thinking, are welcome. 

Please send an abstract of the paper, by e-mail (750 word limit). Abstracts should be formatted for anonymous review and submitted to the program committee chair, Stephen Schulman, at sschulman@elon.edu on or before November 14th, 2007.

Please indicate “Arendt Circle submission” in the subject heading, and include the abstract as a “.doc” attachment to your message. Program decisions will be announced by mid-December.  

Program Committee:

Stephen Schulman, Elon University

Karin Fry, University of Wisconsin Stevens Point 

Adrian Switzer, Emory University

Our first independent meeting was outstanding, and we are looking forward to the same camaraderie and intense discussion of Arendt’s work at this year’s conference.  Like last year, the meeting will begin with an informal welcoming reception on Friday evening. There will be morning and afternoon paper sessions on Saturday, followed by a business meeting and dinner. The conference will conclude with paper sessions on Sunday morning. Each speaker will have approximately 35 minutes for paper presentation and discussion combined —papers should be a maximum of 3000 words (15-20 minutes).

Lodging has been reserved at the Holiday Inn Decatur: phone 404.371.0204.