Monday, January 17, 2005

In Defence of Lawrence Summers

Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard University, suggested at an Economics conference on Friday that one reason there are relatively few women in science- and math-related careers could be an innate difference between the sexes. Half a dozen of the conference participants were offended; Nancy Hopkins, an MIT biologist, walked out in protest, saying that she was upset that all the brilliant young women at Harvard were being led by a man who "views them this way." From another New York Times article:
"When he started talking about innate differences in aptitude between men and women, I just couldn't breathe because this kind of bias makes me physically ill," Dr. Hopkins said. "Let's not forget that people used to say that women couldn't drive an automobile."

This sort of thing (the objections, not Summer's comments) drives me nuts: to begin with, Summers was requested by the conference organisers to be provocative, and he stressed that fact repeatedly in his talks. Much more important, the comments did not show a bias. Is it biased to say that most men are taller than most women because of biological differences between the sexes? Research has consistently shown that men tend to score higher than women on mathematical tests; I even blogged about an extensive study last month. On the other hand, women tend to have better language skills. Some of these differences may be (as certain feminists like Dr. Hopkins claim) entirely due to sociological differences, but is it so inconceivable that there is an innate difference in talents? Even if there were such a difference, what does it matter? People like Dr. Summers are not claiming that men are intrinsically 'better' than women; math skills (or intelligence tests in general, for that matter) do not measure a person's worth any more than height does. All Summers did was advance it as one possible reason for the under-representation of women in scientific careers.

Unfortunately, it appears that at least to a few people, political correctness is more important than a genuine understanding of the problem being considered. I'm glad to see that Dr. Summers is standing by his remarks.

Update: Tall, Dark, & Mysterious makes some good points. This is getting more publicity than I thought it would; there's even a Slashdot article.


Suresh said...

I couldn't find the conference web site, but it appears from the quotes that prior speakers had presented evidence to refute this very claim, and thus for him to claim so, with no evidence other than the sample space consisting of his daughter, seems not just provocative, but wilfully blind.

It is one thing for you or I to speculate in a conversation (or in a blog) that there are innate differences between men and women in scientific matters. But at a conference venue, one expects reasoned opinion (which might still be provocative, but should be based on *something*).

In other words, if i was asked to play devil's advocate to the claim that there is no reaosn for disparity between men and women in math professions, I could point to evidence suggesting that girls are less interested in scientific careers (if such evidence exists) or I could point to any neurological evidence that male and female brains are wired differently with respect to math skills. THe evidence may be slim, but that's ok, if I am to be the contrarian.

However, he is not being invited to come up with theories based solely on his own ad hoc opinions: what value is that ? It's even worse than getting up in front of crowd of biologists and saying that thin people are sad because Kate Moss looks sad.

Nitish said...

I should admit that I haven't been able to find the conference site either (I should have mentioned that), so I'm judging by the coverage in the Times. (The Post also has a brief article, but it doesn't say anything new.) Even if we found the website, it probably won't contain the text of his speech; the Times article says "Dr. Summers arrived after a morning session and addressed a working lunch, speaking without notes. No transcript was made because the conference was designed to be off-the-record so that participants could speak candidly without fear of public misunderstanding or disclosure later."

I don't think he claimed "Women are under-represented because they're innately worse at math." He cited it as one possible reason for the difference. In fact, the first reason he suggested was a sociological one; society expects married women with children to spend time with their families, leaving them less time for their careers.

Also from the article: "Dr. Summers cited research showing that more high school boys than girls tend to score at very high and very low levels on standardized math tests, and that it was important to consider the possibility that such differences may stem from biological differences between the sexes." It doesn't seem like a random theory based on his daughter (who was possibly brought in just to add human interest or whatever).

So I think it's more like getting up in front of a crowd of biologists and saying "Studies tend to show that 60% of thin people, but only 48% of not-thin people, are unhappy. Heck, look at Kate Moss. [wait for laugh] Perhaps it's because our culture denigrates thin people, and so they worry about their bodies. On the other hand, we shouldn't eliminate the possibility that it's biological; we need to study that too."
(Of course, people usually worry about being too fat in our culture, but that's beside the point.)

Rathish said...

I just finished reading a book by Steven Pinker called Blank slate which addresses the same (and very similar related) question(s). It explains the birth of such social justice issues in the academia and S.P elucidates how so many differences actually are dependent on the genetic makeup.

Nitish said...

I haven't read The Blank Slate, Rathish, but it seems to have some very interesting reviews. Honestly, I have no idea whether mathematical potential is something more present in boys than girls at the time of birth, or whether the observed difference is caused by society. I do think that there was nothing wrong with Summers mentioning an 'innate difference' as a possibility, though.

What do readers think? It's ok to speculate; I don't think anyone who reads this blog is an expert on the subject. As Suresh rightly points out, while one expects reasoned opinion at a conference, a blog is different. :-)

Sanketh said...

Well, I have a few women in class and they drive me nuts! Tell Summers that.

Let the man live. I am sure it is hard enough being President of Harvard.


Anonymous said...

Yes Sanketh, I know exactly how you feel. My math class of 40 had 39 men, and each and every one of them drove _me_ nuts.