Thursday, June 16, 2005

Jews, Women, and Faulty Parallelism

In this Wa Po column, Richard Cohen describes a University of Utah study that supposedly found that the genetic makeup of Jews reflected their "natural selection for enhanced intellectual ability." Cohen then wonders about why the public has reacted differently to this study than it did to Larry Summers's speculations about the supposed genetic basis for women's under-representation in the fields of math and science:

The reason the Utah study of Jews produced no outcry is that it suggested Jews were, like the children of Lake Wobegon, above average. The reason Summers got into trouble is that he wondered if, so to speak, women were below average. But if one is possible, why not the other? The answer escapes me -- and it cannot be, as we all know from the Utah study, because I'm dumb.

Ho ho. If I were inclined to take a cheap shot at Mr. Cohen (whose columns I generally like), I might note that Mr. Cohen is comfortable with both theories because he's both Jewish and male and therefore a two-time winner per both Utah and Summers. Of course I would never sink so low. However, I will point out the actual difference between the two ideas, which is their potential impact in the real world.

If the president of Harvard really believes that women can't cut it in engineering, his belief could impact the school's admission policies. (Think that's unlikely? Why? Women have been subject to such discrimination in various fields for decades.) And given Harvard's influence and prestige, the same attitude could well spread to other institutions.

By contrast, no one would seriously propose preferential treatment for Jews. In fact, many of those who believe that Jews are genetically different from other ethnic groups would decry excessive Jewish influence in the professions and the media. They want to limit Jewish power, not enhance it.

So theories of Jewish "superiority," while probably silly, are mostly harmless. Theories of female "inferiority," while equally silly, do measurable harm. When put into a societal context, the difference between the two isn't so very mystifying.
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