Nietzsche, Robinson Crusoe, and Women in Physics
When Zahra Hazari and Marie-Claire Shanahan assert that it is not yet time to “declare victory in the participation of women in science” (The Back Page
June 2011), their rhetoric implies both a specific stance in moral philosophy, and a specific philosophical anthropology, neither of which are addressed explicitly in their article. But these unstated matters form a critical part of their argument.
First, the moral philosophy. The term “victory” implies a conflict. The conflict under examination by the authors is presumably between women who wish to have careers in physics, and the social, institutional, and other factors which prevent them from doing so. The primary means by which the authors judge whether this conflict is continuing is statistical: they compare the percentage of those earning bachelor’s degrees in physics who are women (21% in 2007), to the percentage of women in the general population from which their samples are drawn. As of 2010, an estimated 50.7% of the US population was female. Presumably, if the percentage of women earning physics undergrad degrees is less than 50.7%, there is prima facie evidence of “underrepresentation.” No one disputes these statistical facts.
The dispute is whether this statistical anomaly provides direct evidence that a moral wrong is being committed. Without raising the question directly or providing philosophical arguments for their position, the authors simply assume that underrepresentation is morally wrong.
The ostensible focus of the authors’ article is the possibility, raised by President Shirley Tilghman of Princeton University, that only 21% of physics BS degrees were obtained by women in 2007 because that represents a free and unbiased choice on the part of women, and it is simply the case that relatively few women choose to enter physics as opposed to, say, the life sciences. When President Tilghman says “As scientists we have to be open to that possibility,” she means that no interpretation of data should be ruled out without a good reason for ruling it out. The authors try to provide reasons to rule out President Tilghman’s interpretation, but in my opinion, fail to do so.
No number of surveys or statistical facts can resolve a dispute about philosophical anthropology, by which I mean one’s fundamental beliefs about the nature of human beings. The authors seem to believe that underrepresentation is a moral wrong. This position is historically associated with the philosophy of feminism, which attempts to treat one’s gender as an arbitrary and fairly unimportant feature. Like hair color, it should play little or no role in whether a person can pursue a given career. In feminism, as in many other modern philosophies, Nietzschean radical individualism prevails, and entails the right to define one’s own meaning of life and the universe. According to this philosophy, women (and men) are autonomous agents, free to create their own meaningful lives in any way they choose. They should not be restricted in these choices by anything: their sex, their hair color, or the opinions of others, which means society.
The individualistic aspect of feminism is why the authors cite “social influences” as a significant harmful influence on women who might otherwise choose to pursue physics in larger numbers. In a radical individualist philosophy, no one has a right to tell or even advise anyone else what to do.
But no one except Robinson Crusoe can live a consistent radical individualist philosophy. We are social creatures, dependent for our very lives on the unseen thoughts and actions of others. When the authors say that society adversely influences women with its “stereotypical views of interest and ability in science,” they imply that society should change, and keep changing, until it reaches the feminist ideal of perfect 50.7% representation of women in physics, and everything else. If this is what they want, they should simply say so.
I would respectfully request that the authors do some introspecting in order to discover what they truly believe about their moral philosophy and about the nature of the human person. The one useful fact that they seem to have found is that you can motivate women to pursue physics by telling them there are few women in physics. I will remember that, but as for the rest, I am still waiting for a philosophically cogent argument against President Tilghman’s idea that perhaps all the women who want to enter physics and have the ability and persistence needed can currently do so.
Karl D. Stephan
San Marcos, TX