Pharyngula on Larry Summers

by Kieran Healy on January 22, 2005

P.Z. Myers saves me a great deal of trouble by writing the post I had in mind about Larry Summers’ under-informed views about the gender division of labor. I’m particularly glad he takes the time to deal with Steven Pinker’s much quoted line that “Perhaps the hypothesis is wrong, but how would we ever find out whether it is wrong if it is “offensive” even to consider it? People who storm out of a meeting at the mention of a hypothesis, or declare it taboo or offensive without providing arguments or evidence, don’t get the concept of a university or free inquiry.” As Myers says, “If people started walking out on presentations of fact-free, unsupported hypotheses, Pinker wouldn’t have a career.”

In the spirit of adding a bit of empirical data to the discussion, have a read of Erin Leahey and Guang Go’s paper “Gender Differences in Mathematical Trajectories” which reviews a lot of evidence about the gender gap in math and analyzes some big data sets to find that it’s not nearly as large as you might think. (Erin is a colleague of mine at Arizona, by the way.) And to echo one of Myers’ points, the relationship between the distribution of measurable properties like math scores and the phenomenology of attainment within the social structure is (a) a very difficult question, and (b) something you might want to read up on, if you’re inclined to throw hypotheses around innate differences between women and men.

{ 83 comments }

1

eudoxis 01.22.05 at 8:27 pm

Cutsie slogans notwithstanding there is a body of data that show cognitive differences between men and women, as well as effect of sex on different family participation. It is therefore a more than supportable hypothesis to suggest that these differences affects life trajectories, including math and engineering research.

Meyers dismisses this and pulls the claim, out of his hat, apparently, that such effects are so vanishingly small, they amount to zero.

Nature-nurture debates are never very productive but most intelligent and informed people today know that both contribute to individual capabilities and use of those capabilities. A total rejection of any constitutional contribution is no longer on the scientific table. Meyers is way out on this one. (My expectations for social scientists are lower.)

2

Ryan 01.22.05 at 8:34 pm

Actually, it would be interesting to hear your thoughts on the matter, since Myers’ post leaves something to be desired.

“It just seems to me that the fact that women are subject to widespread, long-term bias against their scientific abilities, yet some still persevere and manage to make it, is convincing evidence that the “hypothesis” that they are innately inferior in these fields is bogus.”

“is convincing evidence”? How is this relevant at all to discussions about large numbers of people?

Moreover, why is it utterly implausible (on par with creationism, no less) that discrimination and biology could both be part of the explanation? You can’t just make an argument against the biological hypothesis (convincing as your argument may be), and then proceed to the conclusion that it should be barred from acceptable discourse.

I think the biological hypothesis is probably wrong – but why can’t we talk about it?

3

h. e. baber 01.22.05 at 8:41 pm

Seems like Summer’s remarks were an attempt at feminist-baiting that fell flat.

It’s not as if remarks about innate differences and the burdens of childcare were exciting new ideas that no one had thought of and so worth putting on the table, whether supported or unsupported, to stimulate discussion. So, one asks, what was the point of trotting them out at all? Either to suggest that they were likely true inclusive-or to get some reaction–presumably admiration for taking a brave, tough-minded, countercultural stance against the liberal pieties of the Academy and support for free speech and scientific inquiry against the supposed constraints of political correctness.

He didn’t get the groundswell of support he expected so he backed down.

4

eudoxis 01.22.05 at 8:53 pm

the relationship between the distribution of measurable properties like math scores and the phenomenology of attainment within the social structure is (a) a very difficult question, and (b) something you might want to read up on, if you’re inclined to throw hypotheses around innate differences between women and men.

Kieran, it is a difficult question, particularly as much of bias is covert. That’s why it’s particularly astounding to dismiss contributing constitutional factors to life trajectories out of hand.

5

Kieran Healy 01.22.05 at 9:22 pm

I think the biological hypothesis is probably wrong – but why can’t we talk about it?

I must have missed the bit of my post that placed a permanent ban on talking about it. There was I thinking I was linking to papers reviewing whole literatures that talk about it and related topics.

dismiss contributing constitutional factors to life trajectories out of hand

Sorry, where did I do that exactly?

6

rilkefan 01.22.05 at 9:35 pm

“Sorry, where did I do that exactly?”

How about:

“Larry Summers’ under-informed views about the gender division of labor”

I thought quoting the sneering dismissal of Pinker wasn’t helpful either.

7

david 01.22.05 at 9:40 pm

I really liked the sneering dismissal of Pinker! He’s an ass; the Summers flap explains a lot about why Harvard hired him, and Pinker’s rise to Harvard is direct evidence refuting the notion that attainment of a Harvard position has something to do with occupying the highest tenth of a percent of some skill set. Mark Kleiman and William Saletan, who’ve both written some pretty foolishly certain things about genetics after Summers, should take note.

8

Giles 01.22.05 at 9:41 pm

I think Summers views are aimed more at the problem of the intelelectual detachment of American Universities. About 70% of the general population would I think agree with his statement. But it seems that 90% of academic may disagree. Thats the problem.

9

Giles 01.22.05 at 9:42 pm

I think Summers views are aimed more at the problem of the intelelectual detachment of American Universities. About 70% of the general population would I think agree with his statement. But it seems that 90% of academic may disagree. Thats the problem.

10

rilkefan 01.22.05 at 9:52 pm

“In the spirit of adding a bit of empirical data to the discussion”

But a paper on mean high-school performance is only loosely relevant to the question of high achievement.

11

h. e. baber 01.22.05 at 9:56 pm

I don’t remember if the figure was 70% but according to data a colleague turned up Americans were more likely to believe that there were significant innate psychological differences between men and women than the populations of quite a few other countries, including unlikely ones like Mexico.

I think there are at least two reasons: (1) the extent to which Americans believe that performance, especially in math, is a result of innate “talent” more than plain hard work and (2) the covert nature of discrimination in the US and lip service to equality which obscures the social mechanisms that perpetuate sex roles.

12

Kieran Healy 01.22.05 at 10:00 pm

“Sorry, where did I do that exactly?”

How about:

“Larry Summers’ under-informed views about the gender division of labor”

Yes, Summers’ comments were under-informed. No, saying so is not equivalent to “dismissing constitutional factors out of hand.”

13

Detached Observer 01.22.05 at 10:13 pm

Why are Summers’ views are underinformed? Did he ever say he believed innate differences play a role in the division of labor? He merely cited it as one out of a long list of hypotheses that cannot be ruled out at this stage. Being angry at that is precisely trying to place a ban on talking about it.

14

rilkefan 01.22.05 at 10:19 pm

So you meant “under-informed but maybe correct views”? I didn’t get that from your post, but maybe that’s my fault.

Are you actually informed about Summers’s information, by the way? For the record, I thought Summers was not claiming that equal-mean-broader-width distributions explained gender hiring differences, or that the distributions were in fact different, but that the latter is possible and might contribute to the former, and that this is a reasonable (if possibly imflammatory in some venues) position given the state of knowledge.

15

Andrew Boucher 01.22.05 at 10:26 pm

Jews are also over-represented in the maths and sciences, so maybe we should study whether there is a genetic link there?

16

Katherine 01.22.05 at 10:38 pm

inflammatory.

Mark Kleiman’s post was the one that really made me go “wha?”

“Matt misstates the evidence about the relative skills of the two sexes in a subtle but important way. What matters isn’t the difference in central tendencies between the two distributions, but rather their dispersion around that central tendency.

For excellent evolutionary reasons, human males display higher variance than human females on many important traits, including measures of mental capacity. That means that they are likely to predominate among the top one hundredth of one percent of almost any cognitive talent, unless women are on average much better endowed in that particular department.”

What’s the evidence for this?

Here’s what bothers me: if we saw some variance in tests between races, and we weren’t Charles Murray or some other kind of jerk, we would be suspicious of that variance and look for environmental factors. But when the finding is that women are mainly average and men vary more and hence all the great geniuses are men, people think “Yes, of course. And there are sound evolutionary reasons for it too.”

It may be true, I’ve not seen the research. But I feel like the finding is NOT treated properly skeptically by a lot of men who should know better. Obviously the biological differences between men and women are much, much, much greater than the biological differences between races. But I know a lot of the stuff about “how evolution explains why men are from Mars and women are from Venus” is bullsh*t. And if you go back further in time, the pseudoscience about the inferiority of women may not quite match the pseudoscience about the inferiority of racial minorities, but it’s pretty damn impressive.

And Drum and Yglesias are exactly right about the context of Summers’ remarks.

17

Matt 01.22.05 at 10:43 pm

Myers’ earlier remarks are also worth looking at. The link is long, so I might not be able to make it fit right, but here it is:
pharyngula.org/index/weblog/comments/some_man_needs_to_calculate_the_rotation_velocity_of_mlks_corpse_immediatel/

18

eudoxis 01.22.05 at 11:12 pm

dismiss contributing constitutional factors to life trajectories out of hand

Kieran: Sorry, where did I do that exactly?

I was under the impression you were in full support of Myer’s position which is best summarized in his own words:

“I’ll tell you how much of a role discrimination plays in limiting female professors in so-called “elite” universities: 100%.”[the discussion is actually in regard to hard sciences and engineering], and

“You can come back and tell me about “distribution curves” and “long tails” when the playing field is level and you can actually legitimately provide appropriate data.”

That’s the position I am speaking to. (comments and emphasis mine)

19

dsquared 01.22.05 at 11:39 pm

On the issue of women walking out of the presentation, I’ve been wanting to make the following points:

1) About 80% of all communication is non-verbal, so we would expect non-verbal cues to be presenting a lot of information about whether Summers was talking in a spirit of innocent inquiry or just trying to be nasty about women. This information would not be available in the transcript.

2) Women often pick up on nonverbal cues better than men.

3) Summers is a prick. A complete, total and utter, unbelievable prick. The kind of guy who can make “Happy Birthday” sound like “your mother’s a whore”. Everyone who’s ever met him, even his friends, basically agrees with this.

And therefore, it’s likely that the women who walked out did so because of the totality of the presentation, including Summers’ nasty little supercilious attitude. This is more likely than their being overwhelmed by the sheer force of the heresy of the idea.

Oh yeh and

4) So is Pinker.

20

Glenn Bridgman 01.22.05 at 11:54 pm

DD, fantastic. Now, not only do we have adhoms, we have secret, unrefutable adhoms!

21

Detached Observer 01.22.05 at 11:57 pm

Dsquared,

Perhaps, but NOW has called for Summers’ resignation. This appears to be motivated purely by the sheer heresy of suggesting that innate differences have not been ruled out by the data.

22

derrida derider 01.23.05 at 12:03 am

dsquared, do you personally know either Summers or Pinker? Or is it that you just don’t like their views?

And if I walked out of every presentation where the speaker’s body language was disrespectful I’d miss a lot of presentations.

Both Pinker and Summers come across as abrasive people in their books (whether they’re like that in real life, I can’t say – I’ve found authors’ live personalities don’t correspond well to their prose style), but given some of the comments here I can see why. To equate them with the odious Charles Murray (yes, I have met him) is unfair.

Look, Pinker makes the point in one of his books that the neat nature/nurture distinction is so flawed that it is “not even wrong”. Its clear that almost any socialisation is going to widen innate differences in abilities amongst individuals. Given the huge intra-group variations, though, why are people getting fired up about the possibility of relatively tiny innate inter-group variation?

23

PZ Myers 01.23.05 at 12:07 am

As I’m seeing over and over again, people misinterpret my comments…perhaps because the point is too difficult and subtle for some. I do not think there are no cognitive differences between men and women. I also think there is some very interesting stuff being done on the neurobiology of the sexes. That simply isn’t the issue.

What is the issue is the simplistic interpretation of human performance in extremely complex tasks. We aren’t talking about differences in the size of hypothalamic nuclei, but instead how well people can juggle a large array of very diverse tasks — seriously, being a scientist does not involve sitting around all day visualizing rotating 3D objects. Even if one does find small differences in specific cognitive abilities at such a low level, it says nothing about the performance of individuals at much more sophisticated tasks.

And you’re also going to be hard pressed to find evidence that these differences are innate. Sex differences in socialization and in expectations are so pervasive that it is difficult to work around them.

And mostly what Summers did wrong is to flail about absurdly and make unsupportable assertions about the abilities of professional women in front of a bunch of professional women who knew that stuff far better than he.

24

dsquared 01.23.05 at 12:09 am

Pinker, no; only through media appearances and descriptions of his behaviour.

Summers; met him twice – he was a prick both times, and I have numerous secondhand descriptions of him as “a prick”.

Even Brad DeLong, who is one of his mates and has coauthored papers with him, agrees that he has a bad first impression.

25

h. e. baber 01.23.05 at 12:11 am

Here’s a nice item on The Bell Curve

The idea that males show wide variation while women are mediocre plodders is part of folk wisdom. If that’s the way the results look it would seem that there is very good reason to think it’s a result of socialization: intuitively, if the expectations and opportunities for a group are high then those who can cut it will be pushed ahead while those who can’t will be worse off than if the expectations were lower.

What’s curious is that where there are clear genetically determined statistical sex differences as far as I know you don’t get more variability amongst males–just overlapping curves. E.g. Statistically adult men are taller than adult women–you don’t have more very tall and very short men with women clustering in the middle; statistically women live longer than men–you don’t get more infant morality at one end but more extreme longevity at the other end amongst men with women clustering in the middle.

26

peggy 01.23.05 at 1:03 am

The woman who walked out, Nancy Hopkins, has a clear understanding of discrimination against women in science. A tenured professor at MIT, she showed that “women faculty [were] receiving lower salaries, less space, and fewer resources for their research than male colleagues”. Her research was presented to the administration by a group of female science professors. MIT did a fuller study and made a large announcement about correcting the inequalities.
MIT Report on The Status of Women Faculty

27

uglytruth 01.23.05 at 1:19 am

There seems to be a misunderstanding here. It is not “minute differences” in mean ability that are being discussed here. The important issue is the *tail of the distribution*. If, as Summers and numerous studies suggest, the tail of the distribution in math ability is overwhelmingly populated by males (without necessarily having a large effect on the *mean* of the distribution – it could be just due to larger variance), then jobs requiring exceptional math ability as a *prerequisite* are likely to be populated by males.

Ask mathematics or theoretical physics professors what their math SAT scores were and the most common answer is probably “800”. We are talking about the extremes of ability here, not small differences in averages.

One could make the similar comments about height distributions and NBA centers, hopefully without the accompanying PC backlash.

28

Kieran Healy 01.23.05 at 1:32 am

There seems to be a misunderstanding here.

Ugly, I think if you reread the thread you’ll find that people fully understand the point about means and variances in math scores. It’s its relevance to the problem at hand that’s at issue.

29

rilkefan 01.23.05 at 2:01 am

“Even Brad DeLong, who is one of his mates and has coauthored papers with him, agrees that he has a bad first impression.”

This seems evidence against him being in essence a “prick”.

“I think if you reread the thread you’ll find that people fully understand the point about means and variances in math scores. It’s its relevance to the problem at hand that’s at issue.”

If there has been reaction against the relevance of the variance argument I missed it – I’m stuck at my 10:19 position.

30

tc 01.23.05 at 2:10 am

The data from the 2004 SAT takers shows that more than twice as many (21,507 vs. 9,809) males vs. females scored 750-800 on the SAT math test. That’s where future professors in math-heavy fields come from… unless you don’t actually believe that the SAT-M has anything to do with math skill?

31

dsquared 01.23.05 at 2:16 am

Ask mathematics or theoretical physics professors what their math SAT scores were and the most common answer is probably “800”.

That would mean beyond nothing. I took the SAT at age 11 while I was at school in Oklahoma and I got a score of [… drum roll] 800 [drum roll, yes, we’re all very proud].

Despite this, I would certainly classify myself as “shit at maths”.

32

joel turnipseed 01.23.05 at 2:25 am

Uh… GRE has nothing to do with math skill, I think: I got 700+ on SAT and 800 on GRE Math and got D’s and C’s in college calculus (hence: Philosophy, then, worse, writing).

My experience and intuition tell me that pz meyers’ is the right position: there may well be “tail end” differences in talent–and, I’d say, in Math/Theoretical Physics these may be bounding variables–but in rest of engineering/core sciences the ability to persuade colleagues, manage long hours, attract funding, etcetera will matter as much as your some slice of your IQ, however sharp. (Also: I spent seven years in software, including founding/selling company, and I would say there that social problems–including discrimination–prevented more women from succeeding than brains ever did.)

33

ecv 01.23.05 at 2:27 am

34

SamChevre 01.23.05 at 2:46 am

I haven’t read the research paper cited, so this is a comment on the controversy, not the specific statements in the paper. (And I apologize to all the rest of the statistics geeks, to whom this point is obvious.) The problem with “men and women aren’t, on average, very different” as a response to Summers’ comments is that the effects of averages are much magnified at the tails of a normal distribution. For example, if the average difference between group A and group B (men and women in this case) is only one-quarter of a standard deviation (in heights, one-quarter std dev is just over a half-inch), two-thirds of the top 2% of the group of A and B would come from group A.

Thus, the difference between men and women on math aptitude could be tiny, but in the world of academic mathematicians (who are drawn mostly from the top 2% of the population) it would be greatly magnified.

35

eudoxis 01.23.05 at 2:56 am

“in rest of engineering/core sciences the ability to persuade colleagues, manage long hours, attract funding, etcetera will matter as much as your some slice of your IQ, however sharp.”

Those are controlled variable in this case. I can’t imagine that it’s any different for other academic disciplines.

36

joel turnipseed 01.23.05 at 3:11 am

eudoxis — I find it very hard to believe that one could “control” for such variables. In fact, I find the very notion impossibly naive… how could you (especially on meyers’ complex notion of relation of intelligence to other social factors (both w/r/t the development of each (scalar) and their instrumental effect(vector)))? “Ms. Marcus, did you ever fail to have an influential discussion concerning many-world quantification?”

37

rilkefan 01.23.05 at 3:23 am

For complete coverage with links to blogs _and_ research, see Gene Expression.

38

eudoxis 01.23.05 at 3:23 am

The currency under discussion is mathematical/hard science ideas, not general ability to get grants, manage long hours, etc. which are things common to (nobody is physically controlling anything), other academic departments.

39

tc 01.23.05 at 3:27 am

The Leahey & Guo paper that Kieran posted analyzes the NLSY and NELS, but doesn’t actually mention the relative numbers of males and females at the high end. Hedges & Nowell do, and find results consistent with the SAT, GRE and other standardized tests: a lot more males than females at the highest math levels.

The Breiger paper doesn’t mention test scores at all.

40

pedro 01.23.05 at 4:16 am

I think Michael Bérubé did a splendid job of addressing the Summers affair. It never ceases to amaze me how very many simpletons feel scientifically validated to pontify about the importance of biology in understanding why women don’t seem to thrive in the sciences. Oddly enough, often these are the very people who have no qualms about decrying any insinuation that conservatives are constitutionally indisposed towards intellectual rigor and scientific success.

41

pedro 01.23.05 at 4:20 am

Caution, readers of Crooked Timber: Gene Expression is a hack.

42

John Quiggin 01.23.05 at 4:24 am

I’ve been mildly surprised that no-one (I’ve read) has mentioned the (in)famous toxic waste memo. This shows Summers in much the same mode as in the more recent speech.

It’s a mode much employed by economists of a certain temperament, a sort of epater le bourgeois from the right (Steven Landsburg does it a lot). It doesn’t appeal to me and I don’t think it does a lot to advance the cause of debate.

43

Visitor 01.23.05 at 4:25 am

Does anyone know how these sorts of studies control for practice?

That is, in my experience in mathematics, a huge degree of mathematical “ability”–even ability to tackle apparently new problems that the test-taker has never seen before–is due to a vast, and largely unconscious, body of knowledge about how to tackle spatial or quantitative problems, make them simpler, analogize them, etc, on top of a more traditional facility with the specific field, such as trigonometry. The more math you do, the better you get at both that math, and learning new math. Same with basketball or tennis–I don’t know how much (if any) of the racial difference in these sports is due to innate ability, but a lot of it is obviously due to how many hours the players spent playing the sport as children. How do you measure this? For math, obviously class-time is an approximation, but especially at the high end, how do you count all the hours a boy might spend thinking about cool math problems on his own? That is, how much of the ability difference might be due to differences in practice time–which in turn is presumably due to degree of interest in the subject–which in turn could be partially due to biology, but is probably at least as much due to culturally established differences in what the two genders should find to be fun. In any case, how do you test this, when at the high end so much skill is due to practicing on your own in unmeasured, unregimented periods of time?

Maybe there’s an answer to this, I was just wondering. But if skill if dependent on practice, even a 5% yearly difference in the time spent outside of class thinking about X would result in a huge difference in ability to do X after 20 years.

44

K 01.23.05 at 4:27 am

The SAT tests algebra and easy geometry and above all, standardized test taking skills. I got an 800, and while I was a perfectly respectable math student in high school, I have forgotten trig and calculus in their entirety (unusual for me, I have a psycho memory), could never do proofs or derive the right equations from word problems and I didn’t take a Math SAT II because it would’ve been embarrassing….As far as being a math professor, it’s like assuming that how good you were at memorizing the times table is an indicator of genius. The only thing sillier than believing the SAT is a good measure of math skills would be believing the SAT was a good measure of verbal skills (as in, writing ability, which is a lot more relevant than how good you are at multiple choice analogies.) These tests are not meant to sort out people all the way at one end of the spectrum, and they don’t test specialized skills at all (except, again, the skill of taking standardized tests.)

I assume that’s not what the serious research is based on…I’m just saying though.

45

uglytruth 01.23.05 at 4:33 am

From the research paper referenced in the post: (p.6)

“Gender difference is most pronounced for mathematically gifted children… Descriptively, we found that boys and girls have similar overall averages, but different variances.”

A larger variance among males would predict relatively more males than females at both ends of the curve, without affecting the mean at all. Given that there is definitely a minimum threshold of math ability to become a professor in a number of fields, I don’t see how you can rule this out as an effect. (Regardless of how good you are at time management or colleague relations, there is a lower cutoff to master material like quantum mechanics or abstract algebra or information theory, so the tail distributions really are important.)

Note that I do think there are sociological biases at work preventing women from succeeding in the sciences, and indeed that effect might be larger than any differences in distributions of ability. But I do not see how one can rule out the latter as a partial cause of the current situation.

PS I only mentioned the SAT as an example. The observation of greater variance in male mathematical aptitude is seen in a number of contexts and over a large range of age groups.

46

Maureen 01.23.05 at 4:44 am

“The data from the 2004 SAT takers shows that more than twice as many (21,507 vs. 9,809) males vs. females scored 750-800 on the SAT math test. That’s where future professors in math-heavy fields come from… unless you don’t actually believe that the SAT-M has anything to do with math skill?”

The SAT showcases algebra and geometry–fields I had completed my studies in in ninth grade. When the future math professors of America are taking the SAT, they’re in calculus or pre-calc.

47

Katherine 01.23.05 at 4:57 am

Argh.

The point is not only that:
1) the tests might not be pure measures of ability,
but also
2) even if they showstatistically significant, different outcomes in ability, you don’t know why.

If they only test basic skills, they may be very very poor indicators of the sorts of abilities you’d need to be a professor. But if they don’t only test basic skills, they will partly test what you’ve learned, and that is not pure biology or genetics.

I would guess the differences among different races, religions and other cultural groups are also statistically significant–and in fact greater than the difference between men and women. Yet most of us do not leap to assume that those test scores reflect some innate genetic difference. Most of us assume the opposite.

Now, I recognize that there is a real biological difference between men and women that is much greater than the difference between the “races”. I also recognize that racial discrimination is probably a fair bit greater than gender discrimination right now in this country, and that while black children are much more likely to grow up poor than white children, boys and girls are raised by the same parents and in the same socioeconomic conditions. So it’s certainly a lot more plausible that the differences on the tests or in the results are biologically driven. But some people are positively ITCHING to believe that, long before the results are in.

Given that it’s been 35 years or so since a girl started elementary school knowing she could go to any college in the country–not very long at all–it seems pretty premature to me. And the idea that male variance is greater across the board, as opposed to in a few fields, for “perfectly valid evolutionary reasons” just mystifies me. What, we were home gathering the berries and caring for the babies or the fields, and you don’t have to be very bright to do that, whereas guys were outwitting the mammoths? Seriously–what’s the hypothesis here that everyone finds so compelling? I honestly don’t get it.

48

Katherine 01.23.05 at 5:06 am

(it is stupid to call for Summers’ resignation over this, however.)

49

pedro 01.23.05 at 5:10 am

katherine: I share your frustration. I normally take a dim view of psychologizing, but it is quite hard not to attribute very disturbing motives to these people with a fascination with phenotypes. Nobody seems to conclude, from the fact that republicans are vastly outnumbered in academia, including mathematics and the hard sciences, that republicans are constitutionally inferior at rigorous intellectual work.

50

PZ Myers 01.23.05 at 5:21 am

I’m really tempted to take a ruler to the knuckles of the next blinkered geek who babbles about “the tail of the distribution.”

There has been no measurement of the distribution of capability. You don’t get to to use details of a distribution to support your argument when no one has done the measurement, and there is no way to make the measurement. I don’t even know what you would measure, and no, GRE/SAT/IQ scores are not the appropriate parameters. Nor are reaction times, spatial imaging performance, or which spots on the cortex light up in the MRI when thinking about physics problems.

One of the problems of the Bell Curve mafia is that everything looks like a bell curve to them.

51

uglytruth 01.23.05 at 5:22 am

Katherine,

It is certainly a valid point that there might not actually be any gender-related differences in ability.

Summers listed 3 possible causes for gender imbalances in S&E faculty, and only one had to do with the *possibility* of differences in innate ability distributions.

*If* such differences exist – specifically, one which leads to many more men than women at the tails of the math ability distribution – it would mean many more men than women in the pool from which S&E professors must be drawn. This possibility is actually *supported* by the paper linked to in the post.

Should Summers be flayed for mentioning this possibility?

52

PZ Myers 01.23.05 at 5:31 am

Another reason he gave was that women were unwilling to work 80 hour weeks — a patronizing accusation of laziness.

And perhaps he should be flayed for bringing up petty and unsupported accusations of “innate” deficiencies before the obvious ones: lifelong gender typecasting, the old boys’ network, and chauvinistic administrators with a bias against women. I’m sure the women in that audience were seeing Summers as the problem, when he was standing up there accusing their genes of being the problem.

53

radek 01.23.05 at 5:33 am

Seriously. What are these “perfectly valid evolutionary reasons” suppose to be? Especially as they concern variance of a trait rather then the trait itself. Anyone care to spell them out, step by step, rather than merely ascerting their existance?

(since everyone seems to agree that there is no difference in the means “taking care of babies – low math”, “dodging mammoth – high math” would not even come close to explaining the difference in the distributions)

54

bad Jim 01.23.05 at 5:37 am

Concerning three-dimensional reasoning or spatial imaging: it’s definitely a handy tool to have in your mental toolbox, at least as useful as being able to size nuts and bolts by eye.

The engineers I’ve known have varied considerably in their possession of this gift, but even the best of them had to build physical models of difficult structures to resolve certain problems. (CAD programs are probably good enough now that engineers no longer resort to Duplo or Tinkertoys.)

Even if, for whatever reason, boys excel girls at this skill, the difference is generally exceeded in the tasks a practitioner encounters.

55

sock thief 01.23.05 at 5:49 am

PZ Myers,

Summers was not saying women were lazy. He said that women with children were unwilling or unable to put in the 80 hours.

It remains a recognised problem that having children and a career is difficult to manage. Hardly an accusation of “laziness”. Your desire to demonise Summers is odd.

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Walt Pohl 01.23.05 at 5:53 am

The whole Summers flap is slowly but surely driving my wife totally insane. In fact, I’m virtuously not telling her about this comment thread, since that made finally push her over the edge into full blown psychosis.

The reason why the topic is so hard on my wife is:

a) While she knows more mathematics than 99% of men, that doesn’t prevent 99% of men from pontificating why men are better than women at math.

b) Most people have no idea what makes someone good at advanced math, simply because they have no idea what advanced math is like. The idea, for example, that 3D visualization is the critical talent is just bizarre.

c) The number of women who go into mathematics who experience sexist incidents approaches 100%. Are they all lying?

I have no idea if all other things being equal men are better than women at math (or even if the variance is wider, which seems to be the popular explanation these days). But why speculate? Let’s do the experiment. For the next two generations, let’s treat men and women as equal in mathematical ability, and let’s see what happens. What the people on the other side of the issue want is to ensure that this experiment never happens.

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uglytruth 01.23.05 at 6:00 am

Evolutionary stories are just stories, but we can certainly make one up about how testosterone drives some males to high achievement and others to self-destruction. That could neatly explain the larger variance. (The high achievers reproduce enough to compensate for the losers, making the testosterone gamble worthwhile to evolution…)

The point is not the story but rather the data – SAT scores, or scores on the International Math Olympiad (for high school students) are highly correlated with future success in mathematical disciplines. Sorry, it is just true.

Let’s go way out on the curve – look at Fields medalists or tenured professors of math at Harvard. How many do you think were not able to score in the top 1 percent on these types of exams when in school? Answer: a vanisingly small number, if not zero.

So, it would appear that >99 percentile on these admittedly flawed exams is highly correlated with later performance in math. Suppose there are 10 times as many boys as girls who score this high on the exam. Even in the absence of discrimination, bias, etc. at the university level (i.e. after high school) we would naively expect to find 10 times as many Fields medalists to be men than women. (Actually, as far as I know there has never been a female Fields medalist.)

Note I am not claiming the high school exams are perfect measures of ability – just that they correlate highly with what we universally agree on as high achievement later in life. It is not important to my argument that asymmetry in performance on high school exams be due to innate ability. I am making an argument about what happens later during university and during one’s career. If the pool is already highly asymmetric at the high school level we do not need to appeal to bias to explain asymmetric outcomes later in life.

Finally, let me reiterate that I *do* believe there is bias against women at all levels. But that does not exclude the differential ability argument as a factor.

PS I believe Summers did mention bias and discrimination as his third cause, although perhaps it was not consistently reported during the flaying.

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rilkefan 01.23.05 at 6:05 am

walt pohl: “let’s treat men and women as equal in mathematical ability, and let’s see what happens.”

This would probably require starting a new society of children raised by robots, and a blind assessment of the results, but it would be interesting to see how it came out. Actually moral real-world research programs might be more helpful though.

“What the people on the other side of the issue want is to ensure that this experiment never happens.”

This is ludicrous, as is the insinuation in your point c).

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Ajax Bucky 01.23.05 at 6:19 am

It’s important to emphasize the lack of agenda in this debate, on Summers’ part especially.
Larry Summers is merely acting as a rational, thoughtful, morally forthright man, though his opinions may in fact be derived from incomplete and erroneous data. Or constructed whole cloth from a tissue of lies.
Still, there is no connection between his statements and the rise of Judeo-Christian Biblically-generated male chauvinism in the United States. It’s absurd to even consider the possibility.
And Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a scurrilous work of blasphemy masquerading as cheap science-fictional extrapolation.

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bad Jim 01.23.05 at 6:30 am

…there is bias against women at all levels. But that does not exclude the differential ability argument as a factor.

Sure. And as Rumsfeld memorably said concerning Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

It is, however, a rather weak argument, when alternative explanations lie closer to hand.

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Chris Bertram 01.23.05 at 11:13 am

I don’t find the “greater variance” argument offensive, as such. It may very well be true as a point about the distribution of mathematical ability among males.

What I did find troubling in the remarks of a senior academic administrator was the suggestion that women’s careers have suffered because of their unwillingness to put the hours in. Of course, that may also be true, and again, uttered by an outsider, might be part of a good explanation. But Summers isn’t an outsider who must take the system as a given: he’s someone who presides over it and has a responsibility for the way it functions.

As we all know, academia is, as an institution, very unfriendly to children, families and to those who care about them (a category which, to their credit, includes more women than men). If you want to build a career then you had better not reproduce too early or too often (but, by the time women have a PhD and a tenured position, time is starting to run out ….).

Is this a problem about women or a problem about the institution? Someone in Summers’s position would, if he cared about gender equality, be thinking about changing the institution and addressing the structure of academic careers. But he didn’t: he blamed the preferences of women for their under-representation. That’s offensive.

Oh, and here’s William Saletan in Slate:

bq. Already Summers is being forced to apologize, in the style of a Communist show trial….

Now there’s a guy with a sense of proportion.

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SamChevre 01.23.05 at 12:05 pm

Katherine,

The “evolutionary basis for greater variance among men” has to do with the patterns we observe among other large mammals. A very successful female and one who does OK will have about the same number of offspring; however, a very successful male will have 10 times as many offspring as an average male(or more–there are numerous large mammals where the median number of offspring for a male is 0). If this is the case, selection can lead to a tighter distribution of abilities in females (where the maximizing strategy is to stay out of the lower tail) than among males (where the maximizing strategy is to be in the upper tail). This fact also leads to the hypothesis that testosterone levels correlate to risk-taking behavior because it has been optimal for males to be more risk-seeking than females.

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Alex R 01.23.05 at 12:09 pm

Everyone seems to be missing what I see as the main point of the entire affair. I’ll quote PZ Myers: Context matters. We consider hypotheses of innate differences all the time in science; that’s very different from an administrator using half-baked ideas to rationalize away cultural stereotypes and prejudicial policies.

If Larry Summers were an “ordinary” Ivy League professor giving a talk at a conference about gender differences in the sciences, there wouldn’t be one-tenth the controversy. But Summers is not an ordinary professor. He is the president of Harvard University, an elite institution with a rather poor record at hiring and promoting women.

It reminds me (perhaps unfairly) of Daryl Gates, the former Chief of Police for the city of Los Angeles, who infamously speculated that the reason so many people in LA were dying in police custody after police had subdued them using chokeholds was that there might be biological differences between the carotid arteries of blacks and “normal people” (and yes, that is a quote). Gates’s comment was offensive on its own, of course, but what made it especially offensive is the he was the one with the responsibility for the lives of these prisoners, and was using the completely unsupported hypothesis of innate differences to try to explain away his failures.

Academic freedom protects all kinds of statements and directions of inquiry, but a university president needs to adhere to a somewhat more restrictive standard on what he or she should publicly express.

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the linguist 01.23.05 at 1:27 pm

It’s funny that dsquared hears Summers described as a ‘prick’. At Harvard, it’s almost universally ‘asshole’. Often one doesn’t need to specify: ‘Did you hear what the asshole said?’ or ‘I had a meeting with the asshole. YOu wouldn’t believe what he said to…’.

Which leads to the Crooked Timber-worthy question: is there an important difference between a prick and an asshole? Could we do an ordinary language analysis? To me, prick is more superficial; asshole is deeper (yeah, yeah, it’s intentional). A prick is above all annoying, but it’s often localized and a social defect; you can say, ‘yeah he’s a prick, but he’s really a good guy.’ Can you say that about an asshole? An asshole strikes me as a fundamental personality assessment. I’ve even heard Summers’ assholosity referred to, i’m not kidding, as a genetic inheritance.

But we should not neglect environmental factors. It does seem that at this particular historical juncture economics is particularly productive of assholes.

But then, his parents were both economists. The nature-nurture debate goes on…

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x 01.23.05 at 2:55 pm

“Jews are also over-represented in the maths and sciences, so maybe we should study whether there is a genetic link there?”

Absolutely. After all, why dismiss an hypothesis only because it’s taboo. Or even, only because it is completely idiotic. That’s closing our minds off to nonsense, and that’s something that is discriminatory in itself.

Myself, I hold the theory that there is a genetic factor that explains the predominance of innate essentialist theories among people who are most ideologically opposed to ideas of social progress, justice, equality, that kind of commie stuff, you know. It has something to do with the fact that, in prehistoric times, the survival of the species depended strictly on the ability to screw as many people as possible and then blame it on the laws of nature.

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john s 01.23.05 at 3:37 pm

Chris,

“But Summers isn’t an outsider who must take the system as a given: he’s someone who presides over it and has a responsibility for the way it functions.”

I’d be interested to hear you explain, as head of Bristol’s philosophy dept, why only four out of the fifteen staff are women and none of them have the top position?

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eudoxis 01.23.05 at 4:11 pm

As we all know, academia is, as an institution, very unfriendly to children, families and to those who care about them (a category which, to their credit, includes more women than men). If you want to build a career then you had better not reproduce too early or too often (but, by the time women have a PhD and a tenured position, time is starting to run out ….).

Is this a problem about women or a problem about the institution?

Every once in while this issue is raised to the level of public discourse and then it’s pushed under the rug again by people who feel it’s derogatory to women. However, the reality of the demands of family on women is not there by blame or bias. Nor is it something that is changed by the structure of the institution, either the academic institution or science.

We’re competing in a world where people are willing to live next to the bench 24/7. The commitment to research is something that needs to be addressed, but not in the form of trying to change the all-encompassing nature of research. What ought Summers to have suggested? A dilettante track for those who are unable to commit their lives?

I’d much rather see a stern and explicit warning to young women about having children and making choices early regarding careers rather than implying that this is a matter of accommodation from the top. Too many women are being misled into thinking that the effects of child-bearing and -rearing are so much socially influenced that they can be overcome it with something like dilligence, social justice, and accommodating men.

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Katherine 01.23.05 at 4:58 pm

Thank you, samchevre. I’m not sure I buy it, but that makes some sense.

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Katherine 01.23.05 at 5:36 pm

Here’s one key problem: women tend to have children and have primary caretaking responsibility for young children, such that it’s harder for women to work full time than men in the most egalitarian and feminist household in the world, because of simple biology. Women are the ones who get pregnant, give birth, and store the food in their boobies–and so it is more reasonable that they take care of the night feedings.

Of course raising children will require much time and effort for many years to come. But in later years, it is at least possible that men and women share responsibilities evenly. In those early years–it’s theoretically possible, as long as you have a very easy pregnancy and use breast pumps or formula and what have you. But pregnancy and giving birth are not easy things, and breast pumps are apparently godawful, and formula is not nearly as healthy for the child.

If you have two kids, which is the average, this is only true for a very small % of your total career. It really should not change how far you rise, just delay it a few years. But the years when you do this, fall precisely when you are establishing yourself in your career. And if you cut way back on your work hours, you are going to have problems. If you got tenure three years later, that would be one thing, that would be fair enough. But that’s not what’s likely to happen.

It’s not “oh, we can’t give her tenure, she’s a girl“–though there is some of that; there’s a chemistry prof at Harvard who doesn’t like to take female grad students into his lab because they “cry or get pregnant.” But it is an unfair disadvantage. It’s fair for it to delay your career a few years to take time off to care for yound children, but it has much more effect than it ought too. Institutional sexism, if you like.

And having kids is expensive. And women taking time off leads to both a short term reduction in salary, and a risk to their long term career prospects, so you still sometimes have an expectation, in the most feminist liberal egalitarian marriages in the world, that the man is going to be the primary wage earner.

So you live near the best grad school that accepts him, not the place where your career prospects are best–and later on you only apply to the law schools in that city. And maybe you ace the LSATs and get into one of the top schools in the country anyway. And maybe you are willing to live apart for a year so you can both pursue the best career opportunities available…but only for one year. And on top of the fact that he’s going to be the primary wage earner it’s harder to get academic jobs than even public interest law jobs, so after that he’s going to pick the city once again. And you will be the one to work half-time or take time off to have kids.

This isn’t even really a complaint–there are compensations. You expect it will be a very rewarding thing to spend more time with your kids in early childhood. And as far as your career goes, it frees you up to work in public interest and not a firm, which is an unbelievable compensation….it’s not a coincidence that the public interest crowd at your school is so disproportionately female, and it’s not primarily because they’re better people, either. All in all you prefer your path to his.

But there are plenty of other women who would prefer his path to yours, and don’t get the option, or only get the option by not having kids at all. And it’s not fair, and yes, sexist, that you may never get your dream job because of this, instead of getting it a few years later. And it’s sure as hell not because he’s smarter than you–he may well be, in this case, but that has very little to do with it.

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Chris Bertram 01.23.05 at 5:41 pm

John S: If you thing being HoD in a British academic department amounts to “having the top position”, then you ought to wise up.

Anyway, I’m certainly not going to discuss my colleagues or my department’s hiring history on CT.

What I will say, is that in the UK, hiring decisions are often dominated by the contribution the hiree might be expected to make to the next Research Assessment Excercise. And making a big contribution there may not sit very well with career breaks and family commitment.

I guess the point of turning the question on me was to suggest that I’m somehow in the same position as Summers: reponsible for the functioning of the system. But I’m not: I have to take the incentives as given. people like Summers, or in the UK Vice-Chancellors and the civil servants at the DfES, are the ones who are reponsible for the incentive structure being there in the first place. They ought to be asking whether that incentive structure is seriously damaging to women’s prospects.

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uglytruth 01.23.05 at 5:49 pm

From today’s NYTimes. More fringe scientists like President Summers. Should the flaying of Ms. Judson begin now?

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/23/opinion/23judson.html?hp=&oref=login&pagewanted=print&position=

The interesting questions are, is there an average intrinsic difference? And how extensive is the variation? I would love to know if the averages are the same but the underlying variation is different – with members of one sex tending to be either superb or dreadful at particular sorts of thinking while members of the other are pretty good but rarely exceptional.

Curiously, such a result could arise even if the forces shaping men and women have been identical. In some animals – humans and fruit flies come to mind – males have an X chromosome and a Y chromosome while females have two X’s. In females, then, extreme effects of genes on one X chromosome can be offset by the genes on the other. But in males, there’s no hiding your X. In birds and butterflies, though, it’s the other way around: females have a Z chromosome and a W chromosome, and males snooze along with two Z’s.

The science of sex differences, even in fruit flies and toads, is a ferociously complex subject. It’s also famously fraught, given its malignant history. *In fact, there was a time not so long ago when I would have balked at the whole enterprise: the idea there might be intrinsic cognitive differences between men and women was one I found insulting. But science is a great persuader.* The jackdaws and spoon worms have forced me to change my mind. Now I’m keen to know what sets men and women apart – and no longer afraid of what we may find.

Olivia Judson, an evolutionary biologist at Imperial College in London, is the author of “Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation: The Definitive Guide to the Evolutionary Biology of Sex.”

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washerdreyer 01.23.05 at 6:11 pm

Avoiding the difficult topics and moving on to the fun one. The linguist asks about differences between ascribing the trait of prickishness and asshole (I don’t know what suffix to add here). I think this is the same distinction drawn in the Royal Tenenbaums between being a sonuvabitch and an asshole, where sonuvabitch is taken as obviously better.

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john s 01.23.05 at 6:13 pm

Chris,

“I’m certainly not going to discuss my colleagues or my department’s hiring history on CT”. Fair enough, but isn’t it a bit unfair then to criticise the hiring history of Harvard and Larry Summers.

Sure, being head of a Bristol University dept is not the same as being President of Harvard. But can your vice chancellor tell you who to hire? Do you think Summers can specify to Harvard’s philosophy department who they can recruit?

Maybe Summers could try to change the incentives. But is a university there to lead the way in gender balance or in pushing out the boundaries of knowledge? Would he be doing his job if he pushed the former at the expense of the latter?

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rilkefan 01.23.05 at 6:20 pm

katherine – the rest (or anyway more) of the theoretical variance argument comes from the fact that (as mammals) human males have basically a missing X chromosome (plus a little extra) – so anything wierd on an individual’s X won’t be regressed towards the mean.

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Katherine 01.23.05 at 7:26 pm

Eudoxis posted this while I was writing my other post.

“What ought Summers to have suggested? A dilettante track for those who are unable to commit their lives?

I’d much rather see a stern and explicit warning to young women about having children and making choices early regarding careers rather than implying that this is a matter of accommodation from the top.”

This attitude is the problem. Exactly this. Sexism dressed up as devotion to the search for pure knowledge.

It is fair enough for women to have their progress delayed by the amount of time they take off to have kids. But in a fair society, it would cause minor delays on the same set set of tracks. It would not show that you are a dilettante who is not serious about your career or your research.

It is not fair to assume that you are any less devoted to your research because you are also devoted to having a family.

It is not fair to assume that because you need to work shorter hours than your husband when the kid is 6 months hold, you will also work shorter hours than your husband when the kid is 5 or 14 or away at college.

It is not fair to assume that the woman in front of you is going to take time off and have kids because that’s what girls do–for all you know she may have no desire to have children. (This is true of most of the women in my husband’s Ph.D. program.)

All of those assumptions are sexist, and incredibly common, and stupid. But people like Summers don’t see it. Instead, they tell themselves that it’s unfortunate that men and women aren’t equally represented, but that’s just the way things are, and Harvard must value the search for pure knowledge and truth above all–and anyway tests show that women aren’t likely to be real geniuses and aren’t as good at math.

When actually the tests are really inconclusive. And actually, you don’t do the search for pure knowledge any favors by artificially excluding women who want to have children from it. Quite the opposite.

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rilkefan 01.23.05 at 7:42 pm

katherine: “It is not fair to assume that you are any less devoted to your research because you are also devoted to having a family.”

What is the relevance? Someone hiring a young postdoc who will carry out a research program and gain influence for the institution wants to know a) is this person smart/well-trained and b) will this person put in the unreasonable hours at the lab (maybe in another country) to beat the other bright young postdocs.

Also note that some of your argument seems to rest on the assumption that performance is age-invariant. In Harvard-level math anyway this is not reportedly the case.

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David Velleman 01.23.05 at 8:45 pm

The Pharyngula piece is just a string of cheap shots and non sequiturs. I’m not defending Summers. He was wrong to think that the President of Harvard can set aside his title and make careless remarks on controversial topics — especially topics that bear directly on his duties as the ultimate decisionmaker in hiring and promotion at Harvard.

But Myers’s tirade just shoots at a parade of straw men. Yes, there is institutional bias against women in math and science (did Summers’ deny it?). Yes, it would be foolish to think that there is a simple, quantifiable property called “math and science ability” (does that mean we shouldn’t look for subtler properties that can be quantified?). Yes, individuals vary within groups (does that mean there aren’t group differences?). Yes, correlation is not causation (you mean, Summers committed that fallacy, too?).

Merys’s bottom-line position is this:

It just seems to me that the fact that women are subject to widespread, long-term bias against their scientific abilities, yet some still persevere and manage to make it, is convincing evidence that the “hypothesis” that they are innately inferior in these fields is bogus.

That’s just blatantly fallacious reasoning. The fact that women are subject to widespread bias — a fact that is not in dispute here — proves nothing one way or another about cognitive differences between the sexes. And some people are trying to investigate the possibility of those differences, in research that may have signficant payoffs — for example, in our understanding of child development. (Both autism and delayed language development are more prevalent in boys than in girls.) The backlash against Summers harms the prospects for scientific progress in the se areas.

Myers profess to be an advocate for science, but in this case he is anything but.

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Mary Hope 01.23.05 at 9:47 pm

The “liberal pieties of the Academy” have never been very women friendly in any discipline. If women and men are different, then women are destined to be better at some things than males. In how many disciplines do *women* dominate at Harvard?

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Cranky Observer 01.24.05 at 2:17 am

I’d much rather see a stern and explicit warning to young women about having children and making choices early regarding careers rather than implying that this is a matter of accommodation from the top. Too many women are being misled into thinking that the effects of child-bearing and -rearing are so much socially influenced that they can be overcome it with something like dilligence, social justice, and accommodating men.

Funny thing I have noticed about those men: just when they finish spending all that time fighting their way to the top rank with the 100-hour weeks, no time with family, accolades, etc; just about the time that the institutions supporting them start to think about substantial payback – age 45 or thereabouts – they start to to take 2-3 mornings per week off to visit the cardiologist and prostate doctor. And then take 6-8 weeks off every five years or so for bypass surgery etc. And never quite recover the spunk they had at 25. While the women just keep plodding along until at least 60 or so.

Yet no one seems to complain about this. (for the record, I am a male engineer and have observed enormous amounts of explicit and implicit discrimination against women in technical fields – more than enough to overwhelm any biological differences).

Cranky

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Katherine 01.24.05 at 10:01 am

“Also note that some of your argument seems to rest on the assumption that performance is age-invariant. In Harvard-level math anyway this is not reportedly the case.”

This is a good point when it comes to math…

There may be real differences. I find that very easily to believe in math, where the 3D vis thing really seems to matter and really seems to be sex distributed and skills really seem to peak just when women are having kids.

It’s just hard to sort that out from the frankly disgustingly widespread eagerness to believe that of course it’s empirically proven than women are dilettantes or mediocrities or god knows what else.

“What is the relevance? Someone hiring a young postdoc who will carry out a research program and gain influence for the institution wants to know a) is this person smart/well-trained and b) will this person put in the unreasonable hours at the lab (maybe in another country) to beat the other bright young postdocs.”

Yeah, I would not suggest they hire someone who announces an intention to have a kid that year for a postdoc, actually. That’s not really the issue, though.

Well, I’m done with this discussion. It’s just putting me in an awful mood, as I tend to be rather naive and assume there’s not much discrimination or sexism.

In general, I do think the “junior professors are treated like crap” factor is underrated…which would explain why it’s worst at schools like Harvard, where junior professors are treated extra super duper crappy.

I wouldn’t assume that treating junior professors like crap is necessary to the pursuit of knowledge….not having co-education for centuries is not so great for the pursuit of knowledge either.

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wood turtle 01.24.05 at 10:19 pm

Thanks to “the linguist” for the insider’s look at the Harvard prez. I learned a new word too “assholosity”. Should come in handy. The nature/nurture debate over the assholosity of economists is one that I am sure is on the front burner of CT issues.

Regarding women’s math skills. I was told that the reason that women have trouble with math is because men are always telling them that this is six inches, and this affects their numerical and spatial capabilites.

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Carleton Wu 01.25.05 at 6:47 am

SamChevre,
The “evolutionary basis for greater variance among men” has to do with the patterns we observe among other large mammals. A very successful female and one who does OK will have about the same number of offspring; however, a very successful male will have 10 times as many offspring as an average male(or more—there are numerous large mammals where the median number of offspring for a male is 0).

You should not attempt to draw any conclusions from this whatsoever. Both humans and bison are “large”, but our breeding strategies are very, very different.
Take, for example, our very close relative the gorilla (closer than a bison, anyway). Male gorillas are about twice as massive as females; homo sapiens males are about 25% more massive than females. So, even with this close relative, the sexual dimophism (and, presumably, other aspects of sexual selection and breeding strategies) is very different.
Point being, you cannot examine random large mammals and conclude anything about primitive h. sapiens’ breeding strategies. Which, given the parental care needed to raise infants, was almost certainly nothing like bison at all…
(the hunter-gatherer societies Ive read about were monogamous or mildly polygynous; they didn’t have harems or other methods for the massive male breeding success you suggest).

One other point- you only mention the number of offspring, but what we should be concerned with here is the number of offspring raised to reproductive age. The ‘spread sperm everywhere’ strategy might not be a good one when parental care is very important.

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Tracy 01.27.05 at 7:56 pm

Good lord, how bitter Myers is. Has he ever read Pinker’s work? How The Mind Works is full of evidence, including examples of visual illusions which provide evidence about how our eyes interpret the world right there on the very page of the book! If that’s not supporting your hypothesis what exactly would count for Myers? One must infer that anything short of a full mathematical proof is presenting a “fact-free, unsupported hypotheses”? How does Myers think people figured out how to build the house he (presumably) lives in?

And Pinker’s The Blank Slate, while not as good as How The Mind Works, does contain plenty of reference to studies of twins, adopted and biological children, etc, and as others have stated, is very careful to distinguish between the arguments that biology has some effect, and that biology is the only effect, and that he is proposing the former and not the latter. Which is rather better than Myers post does.

Also, any hypothesis that all the differences in the ratio of men to women in maths or engineering or physics is entirely due to sexism is rendered a bit weaker by the way in that women have flooded into law and medicine once the second wave of feminism started. Why have women being able to overcome sexism in those fields but not others?

By the way, I am female and have a degree in electrical engineering, which requires a little ability in maths. I am not a practising engineer, but my change of plans was not due to any overt act of sexism – and I notice that the vast majority of men also are not practising engineers, and a majority of my male friends from engineering school are also not practising engineers now. We’re not talking about major differences between averages of the sexes here.

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