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A Rational Explanation

Guest Column
Tom Nugent

In her Jan. 19 opinion piece [“Twenty Irrelevant Pages”], Susan Buchman ’01 uses petty, puerile arguments to attack the character of Judith Kleinfeld, while ignoring the substantive part of her report, “MIT Tarnishes its Reputation with Gender Junk Science.” In other words, Buchman tries to discredit a rational discussion with irrational tactics. It is the widespread use of such anti-rational techniques which threatens not only to eliminate the possibility for rational discourse in this nation, but undermines the purpose of pursuing logical, scientific thought at MIT.

Buchman begins her piece with a series of character attacks on both the Independent Women’s Forum and Professor Kleinfeld, using both using innuendo (“I’ll leave the psycho-analysis of that one to you”) and implied, but not overtly stated, pejorative remarks (“The organization makes such well-researched claims as...” and “IWF’s standard rhetoric”). Given that Kleinfeld’s report is criticizing the lack of objective standards in the MIT report, Buchman’s character attack serves only to distract from the main point. She attacks the messengers rather than the message, and hence falls prey to her own accusations of irrelevance.

Buchman is simply wrong when she states that Kleinfeld does not explain why the study falls below scientific standards. I quote from Kleinfeld: “While there are dark references to gender differences in salary, space, and other resources, no actual data are presented in support of any of these claims. Not only is quantitative data missing. Scientific procedures for qualitative case analysis do not appear to have been followed -- the standard procedure for dealing with small numbers of cases.” Furthermore, the measurements (which are not actually reported by MIT; only a summary is given) were themselves reportedly done by an interested party -- thus invalidating their objectivity. Let me restate these points for the sound-bite mentality: data were not gathered by objective parties, scientific procedures were not followed, and almost no hard data are actually reported.

Buchman says that Kleinfeld goes on for twenty pages on “irrelevant” points. I don’t know what report Buchman saw, but in the PDF version I read (<>), Kleinfeld spends 11 pages (not Buchman’s 20) discussing possible theories as to why one might expect differences in gender representation on the faculty even if there was absolutely no discrimination. These pages are relevant because they present a theory to explain the only data that were provided by MIT (i.e., the number of female faculty). In other words, even ignoring the poor scientific method used, MIT is far from proving that discrimination is at work.

Rather than going through Kleinfeld’s report piece by piece, let me summarize the structure of it. She first presents a bit of background on the MIT gender report, then dissects the scientific problems with it, criticizes the uncritical acceptance of the report and the lack of reporting of data, then provides some theories to try to explain the only piece of data provided (without resorting to the catch-all reason of “discrimination”). In other words, she uses a rational, structured approach. How Buchman failed to see this, I do not know.

At the end of her article, Buchman argues that the Kleinfeld report is focused too broadly, and not on the fact that the discrimination report is based solely in the School of Science. In fact, Kleinfeld not only discusses the ways in which the report failed to properly deal with its small sample size, but also how the MIT report itself stated that its findings covered more area than they really do -- i.e., it claimed to cover six departments, more than the three departments that complainants were from.

From the conclusion: “The ‘Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT,’ with its secret data, shrill rhetoric, and shoddy analysis tarnishes the reputation of a distinguished scientific institution. The silence by scientists who know better testifies to the spirit of McCarthyism that is invading scientific inquiry.” Kleinfeld makes a strong case that the MIT gender report is not, in fact, very scientific. It would seem obvious that not only should MIT never be able to be accused of bad science in its studies, it especially should be beyond reproach when it uses those studies to implement policy, given the extent to which MIT people are consulted for input on policy decisions around the world.

More than anything else, I simply recommend reading the Kleinfeld report and deciding for yourself if it has merit. After all, our discourse should be based on facts, not irrelevancies and misstatements.

Tom Nugent received an S.M. degree from MIT in 1999.