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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Defending Summers

It's a season for ridiculous academic debacles (see the Columbia Minutemen fiasco), so now is as good a time as any to mention William Saletan's defense in Slate of Larry Summers' comments on why women are underrespresented in science positions in academia.

I missed this piece when it came out, but it's the best defense of Summers I've come across. And I sorta agree with him, though I wish the piece didn't carry the cringe-inducing subtitle "The pseudo-feminist show trial of Larry Summers":
Everyone agrees Summers' remarks were impolitic. But were they wrong?
He offered three possible reasons for this gender gap. The biggest, he suggested, was that fewer mothers than fathers are willing to spend 80 hours a week away from their kids. The next reason was that more boys than girls tend to score very high or very low on high-school math tests, producing a similar average but a higher proportion of scores in the top percentiles, which lead to high-powered academic careers in science and engineering. The third factor was discrimination by universities.
By some accounts, Summers referred to "innate ability" or "natural ability" as a possible explanation for the sex difference in high-school test scores.
Claude Steele, a Stanford psychologist, writes that in his 1997 study, female students in a math test "performed equal to men when the test was represented as insensitive to gender differences." ... But the study compared average scores, not the distribution of high and low scores, which was Summers' point.
Sex is easily the biggest physical difference within a species. Men and women, unlike blacks and whites, have different organs and body designs. The inferable difference in genomes between two people of visibly different races is one-hundredth of 1 percent. The gap between the sexes vastly exceeds that.
You'd expect some of these differences to show up in the brain, and they do. A study of mice published a year ago in Molecular Brain Research found that just 10 days after conception, at least 50 genes were more active in the developing brain of one sex than in the other.
Let's be clear about what this isn't. It isn't a claim about overall intelligence. Nor is it a justification for tolerating discrimination between two people of equal ability or accomplishment... It's a claim that the distribution of male scores is more spread out than the distribution of female scores—a greater percentage at both the bottom and the top. Nobody bats an eye at the overrepresentation of men in prison.
Already Summers is being forced to apologize, in the style of a Communist show trial, for sending "an unintended signal of discouragement to talented girls and women." But the best signal to send to talented girls and boys is that science isn't about respecting sensitivities. It's about respecting facts.
It's not especially cogent. The 'just more spread out' argument sounds like reaching. "Respecting facts" should not mean, say, confusing gender differences with straightforward evolutionary explanations (aggression and greed, and therefore the gender imbalance among prisoners) with differences that are much harder to explain in evolutionary terms.

I'd just say that there are, or at least might reasonably be, demonstrable differences in certain spatial and mathematical abilities between the top scorers within each gender, even after you adjust (if that is possible) for cultural factors. There are gender differences for autism and Asperger's syndrome, and those have been recently connected to mathematical ability; it's reasonable to ask if cultural changes could be insufficient to ever produce equal numbers of top female and male mathematicians and hard scientists.


Blogger Anna on Sat Oct 21, 03:22:00 PM:'s reasonable to ask if cultural changes could be insufficient to ever produce equal numbers of top female and male mathematicians and hard scientists.

Some points:

1. I think few would disagree that by the time teenagers take the SAT's they've already been substantially influenced by differential cultural factors based on their gender.

2. The etiology of autism spectrum disorders including Asperger's is very, very, very poorly understood. The best anyone can say at the moment is that evidence is consistant with the disease's resulting from a combination of factors which have yet to be well elucidated. Those factors may include genetic susceptibility but almost certainly include environmental factors. Environmental factors are not randomly distributed with regard to sex, and that difference is an artifact of culture. Therefore it would be misleading to use the gender distribution of those diseases as evidence of extra-cultural differences between the sexes.

3. You say the question is reasonable, but I must disagree with its premise. Why ask if gender differences are cultural or not? If they're cultural they could potentially be changed.

As you point out, you can never fully "adjust" for cultural factors, because the contstruct encompasses a seeming infinity of causal pathways. In this context, every new cultural difference discovered presents an opportunity to narrow the gap between men and women in the sciences. On the other hand, anything that can't be explained by already known cultural factors goes into a catch-all which you have carefully avoided calling "innate" differences.
But the term "cultural" includes every aspect of human life that is sensitive to human intervention.

So if the difference isn't cultural, what is it? Biological? Genetic? Divine? Searching for causes of gender disparity that fall within our control has scientific relevance because it shows us what we can change. Searching for differences beyond our control is searching for a reason to give up. It's also inherently unproveable. The latter makes it sloppy thinking, the former makes it hurt.