Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Much Ado About Nothing

I’ve not commented on the brouhaha that has surrounded Harvard President Lawrence Summers’ comment at a conference last week that innate differences might have some role to play in explaining the relative underrepresentation of women in math and science (and relative overrepresentation of women in English and the humanities). Let me do so now. Bottom line: *shrug*. This is controversial? I think the whole situation is one giant overreaction based more on emotional response than on rational thinking. For evidence of that, I submit the statements of MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins upon hearing Summers’ remarks as exhibit A:

“I felt I was going to be sick. My heart was pounding and my breath was shallow, I was extremely upset.”

This is hardly the sort of reaction one would expect an accomplished scientist like Hopkins to have to a hypothesis she doesn’t agree with. It seems to me that the only way one can argue that what Summers said was so totally out of bounds that it would justify the sort of villification being thrown at him is if one can point to volumes of expiremental data that shows that genetic predispositions play no role whatsoever in determining our aptitudes for various types of thinking and fields of study. But that would seem an awfully bizarre argument for a biologist to make, wouldn’t it? I doubt Dr. Hopkins would react so viscerally to the suggestion that there are innate predispositions for doing different tasks in any other species. Are humans suddenly immune to any and all genetic influence?

The primary reason for the overreaction, I think, is that it is based on a crude caricature of the position being objected to. To listen to those who are upset over the comments (NOW has actually called for him to be removed as Harvard president for his horrible apostasy) you’d think that he had announced that women are stupid and men are smart. But he didn’t say anything like that. And the position that genetic differences may account for some of the differences between male and female achievement in different fields of study doesn’t say anything as idiotic as that. Steven Pinker, the MIT cognitive neuroscientist who is one of the foremost authorities on the question of genetic inputs into behavior and aptitudes, had this to say:

First, let’s be clear what the hypothesis is?every one of Summers’ critics has misunderstood it. The hypothesis is, first, that the statistical distributions of men’s and women’s quantitative and spatial abilities are not identical?that the average for men may be a bit higher than the average for women, and that the variance for men might be a bit higher than the variance for women (both implying that there would be a slightly higher proportion of men at the high end of the scale). It does not mean that all men are better at quantitative abilities than all women! That’s why it would be immoral and illogical to discriminate against individual women even if it were shown that some of the statistical differences were innate.

Second, the hypothesis is that differences in abilities might be one out of several factors that explain differences in the statistical representation of men and women in various professions. It does not mean that it is the only factor. Still, if it is one factor, we cannot reflexively assume that different statistical representation of men and women in science and engineering is itself proof of discrimination. Incidentally, another sign that we are dealing with a taboo is that when it comes to this issue, ordinarily intelligent scientists suddenly lose their ability to think quantitatively and warp statistical hypotheses into crude dichotomies.

As far as the evidence is concerned, I’m not sure what ?ample? means, but there is certainly enough evidence for the hypothesis to be taken seriously.

For example, quantitative and spatial skills vary within a gender according to levels of sex hormones. And in samples of gifted students who are given every conceivable encouragement to excel in science and math, far more men than women expressed an interest in pursuing science and math.

Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post also pointed out the same thing:

Summers (even in his earlier, unexpurgated form) wasn’t saying that no individual woman could be a stellar scientist, or mathematician, or engineer, only that overall one gender might be more inclined in that direction than the other. Indeed, if that did prove to be the case, it would be all the more important for educators at every level to nurture and encourage girls and women with scientific promise, and it would make those who achieve at the highest levels all the more valuable in a modern university, or any modern workforce conscious of the cost of gender disparities.

I am a feminist myself. I was a research assistant for a prominent feminist scholar in college. But there is a point at which a rational and mature feminism gives way to a childish feminism that is as intolerant as the misogyny that it responds to, and I think this situation demonstrates that to be true. The hyper-emotional response of the MIT biologist exemplifies the resulting overreaction. As Ruth Marcus said in response to Hopkins’ sudden transformation from brilliant scientist to southern belle with the vapors, “Was there a feminist around — myself included — who didn’t wince at this bring-out-the-smelling-salts statement?” No, you are certainly not the only one. If you become physically ill at the mere suggestion that there might be some other view with merit, then perhaps this whole academic thing isn’t really for you. Universities are supposed to be a place where ideas are debated, not silenced. Summers even announced right up front in his speech that he was going to present some provocative ideas.

Marcus also made the very interesting point that there is a tension here between the scientific reality that genetics is an important input into human aptitudes and the political reaction to such statements in this particular context. Those who are reacting so vociferously to the invocation of some genetic influence on the aptitudes of men and women would likely react just as badly if someone dared to suggest that homosexuality is not genetically influenced. They recognize the role of genetics in virtually every other human trait, from a tendency toward violence from high testosterone levels to a genetic predisposition toward being gay. But the mere suggestion that genetics may play some role in determining the relative affinity and aptitude for specific types of thinking (not that it’s the sole answer, or that it is biologically determinative, just that it might be part of the explanation) provokes an instantaneous and furious reaction. And the reaction is not to show why his statements were wrong, but merely to shut him up and punish him for his heresy. Look, we all know that there are some truly absurd claims that have been made in the realm of sociobiology, some of them deservedly condemned for their basis in and encouragement of bigotry. But you don’t have to be a fan of Charles Murray (and personally, I think the Bell Curve was mostly nonsense) to accept that genetics does play a role in both our affinity and our aptitude for various types of thinking.

I am very good at some types of thinking and very poor at others, just like most poeple, and I have no doubt that genetics has a role to play in that, a complex role that is quite intertwined with the effects of socialization as well. And it’s hardly a huge leap of logic to think that if there are genetic predispositions to such attributes among individuals because of the complex interplay of hormone levels and brain biochemistry, then the statistical distribution of those attributes is not going to be distributed between the genders with absolute equality, especially when the genders do differ in terms of brain biochemistry and hormone levels. If that is true, it emphatically does not mean that because there is a higher proportion of men than women who are highly skilled at math or science, women are dumber than men or those women who are really good at math and science aren’t every bit as good as men who are good at it. Just like it doesn’t mean that because there are more women than men who are highly skilled at English that therefore men with an aptitude for English are any less accomplished than women.

I’ll say the same thing to the group throwing a fit over this that I say to the constant blather we hear from conservative students about their teachers being “anti-Christian” or “anti-american”: get over it. If you’re in an academic community, either as a student or a professor, you are going to run into ideas you don’t like. You’re going to run into people who say things that royally piss you off. You have two choices when faced with such ideas: you can fall down on the floor and kick your feet and scream about how oppressed you are, or you can engage those ideas, debate them, and either prove them wrong or perhaps find out that you were wrong. Unfortunately, those who choose the first reaction also often try to get people fired for daring to say things they don’t like, and they are trying to do that to Summers as well (just as at another Ivy League school, some conservatives are trying to get a professor fired for supporting some positions taken by militant Islamic groups that commit terrorism). The irony is that these two groups don’t realize how much they are behaving like each other. I think Steven Pinker nailed it when asked whether Summers’ remarks were within the pale of legitimate academic discourse:

Good grief, shouldn’t everything be within the pale of legitimate academic discourse, as long as it is presented with some degree of rigor? That’s the difference between a university and a madrassa…

Look, the truth cannot be offensive. 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.

Amen, Brother Pinker. Amen.

Comments

  1. #1 CPT_Doom
    January 26, 2005

    Two obvious issues here:

    1) There is no definitive transcript of what Summers said, nor is there an audio recording, so we are left with the inevitable “he said/she said” here.

    2) Summers is, personally, a very hard man to take – I have met him only briefly (dinner as part of an honors program in college 15 years ago) and remember someone who was very full of himself, and not a very pleasant person to be around – so who said this is probably as important as what was said.

    That being the case, I do understand some of the outcry against his statements, assuming it is in fact true that Summers implied a relatively large portion of the difference between men and women in science careers was due to alleged differences in natural aptitude.

    From what I remember of the literature (and again, this is pulling from my own education 15 years ago), the data simply are not there to imply large differences between men and women on aptitude (although affinity may play a larger role, as I’ll argue below).

    There are two arguments being mixed here – 1) do genetics play a role in the acquisition of various personality characteristics and/or intellectual abilities (the answer is, “yes”) and 2) are there real effects of the genetic differences between male and female (the answer is, “hard to say”).

    The differences between male and female are differences at the average – men tend to be taller than women, stronger than women, and show more aptitude in spatial abilities. BUT there are certainly plenty of women who are taller and stronger than the men in their lives, and likewise women who are better at spatial tests than men. The issue of mathematical ability is even cloudier, because the very best AND the very worst mathematicians tend to be male (i.e., the range of math ability for men is broader than for women).

    But even with these differences, nearly everyone alive falls into the great middle – that is, the area under a classic normal curve in which aptitude and ability overlap. The measured differences between men and women in aptitude areas simply cannot account for significant portions of the differences in employment that Summers was addressing (it should also be noted that tenured positions for women at Harvard have decreased under his tenure as president, which is another factor in this fight).

    The available data also show a very clear trend – equal ability and affinity for math and science in boys and girls through elementary school, and then a vast drop-off in math and science class-taking for girls. That points to a much stronger societal element in determining these differences than genetics could ever account for.

    I think what the women at the talk were really ticked off at is that it appears the questions Summers is asking were answered years ago, but the old tired “girls aren’t good at math” arguments, or permutations of them, continue.

    Personally, I believe the difference in math and science careers for men and women have a whole lot more to do with personality differences than with intellectual abilities. The real differences, those that seem to impact our lives the most, between men and women (or at least betwen straight men and straight women) seem to be those of social interactions, with men being more competitive, and women more socially conscious and nurturing.

    But science, among the various disciplines in academia, is probably based the most on the “male model” of achievement – lots of competition and the belief that attrition from fields (e.g., between the freshmen and senior years of college) means you only retain the “best.” That is the environment that men are most comfortable in, and may actually drive women away (aside, I think it is interesting that the move to reduce the hours medical interns work at a stretch seems to have gained momentum with the rise in women in medicine). That, plus the very strong social pressures that parents, and especially boyfriends, put on women is far more likely to account for the differences perceived than any of the relatively slight differences in ability.

  2. #2 Ben
    January 26, 2005

    Sorry, dude, but PZ Myers (an actual biologist) hit this one on the head, not Pinker:

    Boys don’t have an “innate” tendency towards science and math. Leave them alone, and they don’t grow up into natural engineers: they become animals who like to eat and screw and scratch themselves. The most important contributor to that predilection for tinkering and building and learning is education. Any possible inherited differences are miniscule compared to the power of education and cultural biases…..While there are genetic biases that can skew an individual’s preferences and behavior, none are so cleanly tied to sex or race that we can use them to legitimately discriminate on the basis of those irrelevant traits, and none of the gender/race associated correlations are within even an order of magnitude of the potency of education. How can anyone be so stupid as to stand in front of a room full of accomplished women, all walking, talking refutations of his claim, and suggest such a thing?

    More from Myers here.

    And Massimo Pigliucci, yet another biologist:

    This actually happens to be my field of professional research (genotype-environment interactions), so I feel somewhat qualified in commenting on it. The reason this is amusing is that both sides are very likely wrong. Summers cannot substantiate his claims, because the necessary experimental research on genotype-environment interactions in humans simply cannot be done (we can’t breed people at will and then grow them under controlled environments). Moreover, even if there are genetic differences between genders in some cognitive abilities, this doesn’t mean they cannot be overcome by changes in the (social) environment: e.g., phenylketonuria, a genetic disease that causes severe mental retardation because of the inability to metabolize a common aminoacid, can be entirely prevented, simply by avoiding to intake sodas and other drinks and foods that contain phenylalanine.

    On the other hand, the outrage by some people present at the speech, as well as in the press, is equally misguided: of course there are plenty of genetic differences between men and women (in case you haven’t noticed, just look a bit closer at some of our obvious anatomic features :-) and surely some of them carry over into cognitive traits (which, after all, depend on the brain, itself a complex result of genotype-environment interactions that occur during development).

  3. #3 Ed Brayton
    January 26, 2005

    Ben-

    I don’t think PZ, as much as I respect him as a colleague and even a friend to some degree, nailed it at all. In fact, I don’t think the portion you quoted even begins to engage the other side at all. It contains the same crude caricature I spoke of in my post above, the same crude caricature that Pinker pointed out. The argument he is engaging goes something like this: “Men are good at math and science and women aren’t, so therefore it’s okay to discriminate against women in education.” But Summers didn’t say anything like that. Even the people who are upset at his comments have not alleged that he said anything close to that. The only thing being nailed there is the straw man being beaten to death.

    Massimo’s statement is much closer to reality, and his reaction is much more rational and conducive to calm and reasonable discussion of the question at hand and the kinds of evidence one can use to evaluate competing hypotheses. He is certainly correct to say that we cannot isolate the effects of genetic factors completely, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t test the idea at all or can’t come to some conclusions about the relative impact of genetic factors vs. environmental ones. As he points out, that is the work he does as a scientist, and it is also the work that Pinker does at MIT.

    I think he worded the second argument a bit too broadly, but it certainly is true that the existence of genetic predispositions does not necessarily mean they cannot be altered, channeled or even entirely reversed by different environmental factors. But that is an individual circumstance that is difficult to replicate on a larger scale. Even if individuals do escape their genetic predispositions (and I have no doubt that all of us have some traits that were imposed upon us by our upbringing against the predispositions of genetic factors, and that is in most cases a very good thing), that doesn’t mean that we will not see pervasive trends in terms of the statistical variations among large populations. Indeed, even if it was 100% genetically determined it would not mean that individuals would not vary from the average considerably.

    Even if one was making the argument that aptitude for math and science are 100% genetically determined and that the distribution of that aptitude does vary according to gender (and no one here is making that argument, including Summers, despite the straw men caricatures being presented), it still would not mean that there aren’t an enormous number of women who are highly adept at those types of thinking and every bit the equal of their male counterparts. It would only mean that we would see higher numbers of men with that particular aptitude than women, while in other fields we sould see higher numbers of women with those aptitudes (which we also see, but I doubt anyone would throw quite this much of a fit if someone suggested that perhaps women are overrepresented in English and the humanities because they are, on average, more adept at those fields than men).

  4. #4 Brian
    January 26, 2005

    “But even with these differences, nearly everyone alive falls into the great middle – that is, the area under a classic normal curve in which aptitude and ability overlap. The measured differences between men and women in aptitude areas simply cannot account for significant portions of the differences in employment that Summers was addressing”

    Yes, it could. When looking at academic positions at Harvard, it’s the tail of the bell curve that matters, not the middle. If even small differences exist in mean and standard deviation between males and females, they will be magnified at the extremes.

  5. #5 CPT_Doom
    January 26, 2005

    Yes, it could. When looking at academic positions at Harvard, it’s the tail of the bell curve that matters, not the middle. If even small differences exist in mean and standard deviation between males and females, they will be magnified at the extremes.

    If you believe that Harvard faculty, or any elite faculty, only represents the extremes, you might be correct.

    However, the differences in mathematical ability, for example, only account for the top and bottom 1 – 2% of mathematical ability. And because the tails for female ability are shorter, women are actualy over-represented in the next level of math ability (e.g., the totally genius mathematicians are all men, the really brillian mathematicians are more likely to be female).

    But realistically, all the very best and brightest in this country do not become faculty members, and certainly not all at elite institutions. We cannot assume that the faculty at Harvard, or any school, represent only the very top tail of the curve – they are more likely to represent a far wider range of innate ability.

    Add to that the very real fact that success as a faculty member is not dependent on ability in one area alone (remember, John Nash from a Beautiful Mind was a brilliant mathematician, but not a very good faculty member). Being a successful faculty member requires the ability to achieve new insights and discoveries in one’s chosen field, collaborate with colleagues on research, write clear and compelling papers based on that research, and teach students well (aside: most faculty members don’t pass this final test well enough – research seems to be far more important). There is no test that I know of that can truly measure ability in all of these areas, nor is there any test to measure the interactions among those abilities and their predictive value on success in the faculty role.

    When you add to that the very real problem of teasing out social/environmental factors from innate ability in the human animal (because we cannot do the kind of experiments that Ben noted), and it seems unreasonable to me to focus at all on small differences in innate ability UNTIL we tackle the other issues.

  6. #6 Ed Brayton
    January 26, 2005

    CPT wrote:

    1) There is no definitive transcript of what Summers said, nor is there an audio recording, so we are left with the inevitable “he said/she said” here.

    No transcript has been released, true, but the he said/she said is actually pretty much the same on this one. What he says he said and what the people upset say he said are pretty close, from what I’ve read on it.

    2) Summers is, personally, a very hard man to take – I have met him only briefly (dinner as part of an honors program in college 15 years ago) and remember someone who was very full of himself, and not a very pleasant person to be around – so who said this is probably as important as what was said.

    Well, I don’t know Summers a bit, but I don’t think his lack of personality has much to do with whether what he said was out of line or not.

    From what I remember of the literature (and again, this is pulling from my own education 15 years ago), the data simply are not there to imply large differences between men and women on aptitude (although affinity may play a larger role, as I’ll argue below).

    I don’t know the data any better than you do, but I don’t think it’s terribly important. By all accounts, Summers did not say that genetic differences in aptitude were the sole reason, or even the primary reason, for the differential success rates. He said that it may be one factor. And differences in affinity that might have a genetic component still support the same basic claim (the non-caricatured version of it).

    There are two arguments being mixed here – 1) do genetics play a role in the acquisition of various personality characteristics and/or intellectual abilities (the answer is, “yes”) and 2) are there real effects of the genetic differences between male and female (the answer is, “hard to say”).

    I think the answer to the second question, if the first one is true, must be “almost certainly”. If you’re going to accept that genetics plays a role in relative aptitude for different types of work – which seems completely obvious to me, as I think it should to anyone else – then how could it not have a real effect? If men are, on average (remember, we are not talking about any individual but about statistical likelihoods in a large population), more adept or more interested in one particular type of work and or area of study then it would certainly mean that more men would go into that field than women. It would not mean that women who are adept or interested in that field would be any less so than the men, nor would it mean that no women would be good at it or interested in it. The first argument is quite reasonable and legitimate; the second is the caricatured, straw man version being replied to.

    The differences between male and female are differences at the average – men tend to be taller than women, stronger than women, and show more aptitude in spatial abilities. BUT there are certainly plenty of women who are taller and stronger than the men in their lives, and likewise women who are better at spatial tests than men. The issue of mathematical ability is even cloudier, because the very best AND the very worst mathematicians tend to be male (i.e., the range of math ability for men is broader than for women).

    This is exactly right, and this is exactly the argument being made. And it has nothing to do with bigotry or misogyny.

    The available data also show a very clear trend – equal ability and affinity for math and science in boys and girls through elementary school, and then a vast drop-off in math and science class-taking for girls. That points to a much stronger societal element in determining these differences than genetics could ever account for.

    See, that is exactly the type of research that needs to be done. I haven’t seen such data, but if in fact that trend is clear then that would settle the question of whether the primary cause of the underrepresentation of women in those fields is due to differences in the distribution of aptitude for math or science between the genders. Still to be addressed might well be differences in affinity for the field, which you addressed pretty well in your post.

    Personally, I believe the difference in math and science careers for men and women have a whole lot more to do with personality differences than with intellectual abilities. The real differences, those that seem to impact our lives the most, between men and women (or at least betwen straight men and straight women) seem to be those of social interactions, with men being more competitive, and women more socially conscious and nurturing.

    But science, among the various disciplines in academia, is probably based the most on the “male model” of achievement – lots of competition and the belief that attrition from fields (e.g., between the freshmen and senior years of college) means you only retain the “best.” That is the environment that men are most comfortable in, and may actually drive women away (aside, I think it is interesting that the move to reduce the hours medical interns work at a stretch seems to have gained momentum with the rise in women in medicine).

    This may well be fairly accurate, but it does not in any way contradict the argument put forth by Summers or Pinker. In fact, it merely moves the issue one level down. Still to be addressed is the question of whether that affinity or degree of competitiveness or feeling comfortable in such situations is a question of genetics, environment or (as is almost certainly the case) both in some combination. I would also note that a good many women who have succeeded quite brilliantly in science might well call your position condescending and point out that they’ve done just fine in the “man’s world” of science, thank you very much.

    And on an entirely different level is the question of whether we should bother to do anything about that if it’s true. Certainly no one is suggesting that we try to make English more competitive and therefore more to the liking of men so that they’ll be better represented in that field. If one was going to advocate that science be made less competitive so that women feel more comfortable, how would you go about it? And if you’re going to change that field to insure that it’s more to the liking of one group, why not make it more to the liking of an individual as well? There are fields I really enjoy and fields I don’t, but I could probably conceive of ways that the fields I don’t enjoy might be made more enjoyable and more to my liking. Should we make it a policy to change things in that manner? Or is it perhaps a healthy and normal thing that difference people feel more comfortable in different fields, so let them gravitate toward what interests them and what they are good at?

    These are all interesting questions that flow from the discussion. And none of them are horrible or shameful or should violate some taboo. The asking of them should not provoke shortness of breath or physical illness on the part of anyone in the room, nor should they prompt calls for the firing of anyone who dares to ask them. They are exactly the types of questions that academia is designed to ask and debate and answer. To declare any suggestion of a genetic component to differential human aptitudes as being beyond the pale is absurd, especially when engaged in by scientist who ought to know better.

  7. #7 raj
    January 26, 2005

    There was another article on the Summers flap in Sunday’s Boston Globe http://www.boston.com/news/globe/ideas/articles/2005/01/23/solving_for_xx/

    I say “another” because, for obvious reasons, there were a number of articles on the flap, starting with last Monday.

    I doubt that Summers’s comments would have caused such a significant flap except for two reasons. One, he is president of Harvard, and apparently their record in hiring women faculty isn’t particularly good. To the extent that he might be setting the tone in hiring decisions, his comments might not be seen as particularly helpful. The second reason is that, shortly after he became president of Harvard, Harvard’s black studies program was decimated (well, not quite) largely because of his irascibility. This isn’t the first time that Summers has stuck foot in mouth.

  8. #8 raj
    January 26, 2005

    Well, I don’t know Summers a bit, but I don’t think his lack of personality has much to do with whether what he said was out of line or not.

    It does when one is president of Harvard, and who might be looked to in setting the tone for hiring decisions not only at Harvard, but also for other educational institutions.

    Also, it does when one does not have the background to critically assess the research that he as reportedly using. His background is economics, not biology or evolutionary psychology.

  9. #9 Ed Brayton
    January 26, 2005

    It does when one is president of Harvard, and who might be looked to in setting the tone for hiring decisions not only at Harvard, but also for other educational institutions.

    Also, it does when one does not have the background to critically assess the research that he as reportedly using. His background is economics, not biology or evolutionary psychology.

    I disagree. It has something to do with how people might perceive his comments, but it doesn’t change whether what he said is true or false. If what he said is true, it doesn’t make any difference who he is or whether he has any credentials in the field. If what he said is false, then one should be able to demonstrate why it is false without caricaturing it into something entirely different and much easier to disprove. Either way, what he said is hardly cause for an uproar.

  10. #10 Reed A. Cartwright
    January 26, 2005

    The problem is that there is no official record of Summers’ statements. Depending on who you read, he said something either reasonable or crazy. There is room for both types of statements in this issue, so I take no opinion on Summers himself.

  11. #11 Ed Brayton
    January 26, 2005

    The problem is that there is no official record of Summers’ statements. Depending on who you read, he said something either reasonable or crazy. There is room for both types of statements in this issue, so I take no opinion on Summers himself.

    I’ve read numerous sources on it and haven’t seen much difference between what he says he said and what Hopkins and others say he said. I haven’t seen anything attributed to him that would justify the absolutely hyperbolic reaction that has taken place. And for the record, I’m not taking a position on whether what he said was true or not. It seems self-evident to me that genetics plays a role in determining both aptitude and affinity for different types of thinking and different intellectual interests and I can’t imagine why anyone would even attempt to deny that simple fact. I have no idea how much of a role it plays and I’m certain that, like all such questions of nature and nurture, the interplay of genetics and socialization is quite complex. My point is that there is nothing wrong with raising the question and trying to determine how much of a role it has. All of the statements I’ve seen attributed to Summers have been entirely reasonable statements of possibilities for which there may be some evidence and that further research might help us flesh out. It seems to me that this is exactly what academic debates should be about, but the dramatic overreaction at the mere mention of the possibility that genetics plays a role in this (which the critics would readily accept in almost any other situation without the vitriol) obscures those interesting and important questions.

  12. #12 Ian Gibson
    January 26, 2005

    You’re right that there’s been a huge overreaction to this and I agree with your main points. But this really is a meaningless argument. There are undoubtedly genetic sex differences, but how do we know based on these how much or little influence they would have on womens interest in and aptitude for careers in academic science? There are many, many factors (no doubt mostly unknown ones) that determine suitability for a career as an academic scientist, so how are we supposed to quantify all these factors individually and come up with some sort of formula? There may well be unconscious bias but how could we tell? I don’t see how you could get any actual policy change out of anything Summers said. But the main point is that there shouldn’t be an emotional reaction to what he said; if Summers is wrong, explain why – don’t silence him..

  13. #13 Dan S.
    January 26, 2005

    I think you are doing a great job of identifying the tree while missing the forest completely. Given that there is no transcript of the meeting, the general account we have has Summers offering three explanations as to why women were underreprepresented in higher-end math/physics/engineering/etc. positions, in order of presumed plausability. The explanations are all of a piece, so to speak, suggesting that this difference is natural, built in, and not something mere humans – like Pres. Summers, who has seen the % of women offered tenured positions at Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences plunge since he showed up – could possibly change. Whatever one thinks of Hopkins’ response, anyone could be forgiven the urge to gag a bit . . .
    1) The first was, basically, that there’s a conflict between the tenure track and the mommy track. That’s a real issue, but framed the way it seems to have been , it comes across as strictly a woman’s problem, not a problem with a social construction (as two of the sociologists Summers based his comments on later remarked) that was designed for very difference circumstances. The answer isn’t “making science less competitive,” but – as in the business world – figuring out how to maintain quality while recognizing that employees aren’t necessarily a) single or b) in possession of a full-time child-care provider. And don’t forget, men can be daddies, y’know? Even single ones!

    2) The second was the innate differences bit. Blah, blah.

    3) Finally Summers appeared to dismiss discrimination as a major factor based on an economic idea that I don’t entirely understand, but appears to either a) rule out discrimination anywhere, anytime, or b) be useless in dealing with any sort of systematic discrimination. (If there was discrimination, a facility that didn’t discriminate could snatch up all the really good x’s being discriminated against. Since this doesn’t seem to be happening, discrimination isn’t a major factor.) It doesn’t take into account discrimination at any other level nor the possibility that we still are at a place where, according to the a NY Times article probably mangling bad research, the exact same application is rated lower if said to be a woman’s than a man . . . ie, pervasive, persistant, low-level discrimination.

    I suspect what Hopkins heard – that is, the conotation rather than strictly the denotation (or have I switched them again?) – was equivalent to attending a conference on some serious issue in evolutionary biology, and having the president of a extremely prestigious university trot out a few of the less nonsensical ID arguments, along with a comment about “how come there are still monkeys, then?”

    Summers also ” used as an example one of his daughters, who as a child was given two trucks in an effort at gender-neutral parenting. Yet she treated them almost like dolls, naming one of them ”daddy truck,” and one ”baby truck.””

    Any anecdote that involves an “effort at gender-neutral parenting” automatically makes me suspect bad faith, and I’m rarely disappointed. I believe organizing things this way (“daddy,” “mommy,” “baby,”) is fairly common among young children, especially when there’s an obvious size difference or other related feature.

    Dan S.

  14. #14 Greg Jorgensen
    January 27, 2005

    The last time I checked men overwhelmingly outnumbered women in the prison population. Men commit many more violent crimes than women. Would any reasonable person argue that there is no genetic (hormonal) component involved? I’ve read more than one study linking violence to testosterone, but I don’t recall any outrage or hyperventilating scientists objecting to that.

    The obvious fact of male tendencies to act violently says nothing about me or any other individual. Nor does it say that women are incapable of acting violently. Educated people — especially scientists — who don’t understand the difference between statistics and determinism should stay away from gambling and Mr. Summers.

  15. #15 Greg Jorgensen
    January 27, 2005

    Dan S. wrote:
    Summers also ” used as an example one of his daughters, who as a child was given two trucks in an effort at gender-neutral parenting. Yet she treated them almost like dolls, naming one of them ‘daddy truck,’ and one ‘baby truck.’”

    Any anecdote that involves an “effort at gender-neutral parenting” automatically makes me suspect bad faith, and I’m rarely disappointed. I believe organizing things this way (“daddy,” “mommy,” “baby,”) is fairly common among young children, especially when there’s an obvious size difference or other related feature.

    Anyone who has raised kids and tried “gender-neutral parenting” knows that most boys turn everything into a gun or spear or truck, and girls turn everything into a baby or a kitten. Not all boys or all girls, but enough to make a mockery of most parents’ attempts at politically-correct child-rearing.

  16. #16 Ed Brayton
    January 27, 2005

    Dan S wrote:

    I suspect what Hopkins heard – that is, the conotation rather than strictly the denotation (or have I switched them again?) – was equivalent to attending a conference on some serious issue in evolutionary biology, and having the president of a extremely prestigious university trot out a few of the less nonsensical ID arguments, along with a comment about “how come there are still monkeys, then?”

    If that is indeed what she thinks she heard, she’s in even worse shape than I thought. The suggestion that there may be factors other than discrimination that are at least party to explain for the relative numbers of men and women in a field is not even in the ballpark with the “how come there are still monkeys” argument. Indeed, that is the whole point to what I’m saying. The overreactions are premised on the fact that even suggesting the possibility that there are any factors other than outright discrimation at work in this regard is not only completely out of bounds to mention in public, but grounds for villification and even firing. Sorry, but that’s absurd. Even if it turns out that Summers is dead wrong (and I think it’s highly unlikely that he isn’t right at least to some extent), the correct response is to do the research necessary to show him to be wrong, or to point to the research that is already done. I have no doubt that the explanation for the relative lack of women in math and science is a combination of many factors, some of which are undoubtedly discriminatory – and some of which are not. But any mention of non-discriminatory factors is viewed as slaughtering the sacred cow and is immediately caricatured into an absurd argument that he did not make so that one can start preparing the tar, feathers and boiling oil. The whole thing is an absurd distortion of the rational manner with which academics should (and would) treat any other question.

  17. #17 Ed Brayton
    January 27, 2005

    The last time I checked men overwhelmingly outnumbered women in the prison population. Men commit many more violent crimes than women. Would any reasonable person argue that there is no genetic (hormonal) component involved? I’ve read more than one study linking violence to testosterone, but I don’t recall any outrage or hyperventilating scientists objecting to that.

    The obvious fact of male tendencies to act violently says nothing about me or any other individual. Nor does it say that women are incapable of acting violently. Educated people — especially scientists — who don’t understand the difference between statistics and determinism should stay away from gambling and Mr. Summers.

    Man, I write so many words on this subject over the last two days, and you come along and sum it up so succinctly. Dead on accurate. In no other area of science would this kneejerk reaction and crude caricaturing go on. Without the blinding emotionalism of the taboo effect here, there is no controversy at all.

  18. #18 CPT_Doom
    January 27, 2005

    The last time I checked men overwhelmingly outnumbered women in the prison population. Men commit many more violent crimes than women. Would any reasonable person argue that there is no genetic (hormonal) component involved? I’ve read more than one study linking violence to testosterone, but I don’t recall any outrage or hyperventilating scientists objecting to that.

    Actually, it is unclear how much the testosterone level really plays in male aggression. It is also very true that male aggression patterns are much more complicated than the old ultra-feminist adage of “men violent, women wonderful.” Crime in all its forms is very much tied to poverty, neglect and child abuse, and the violence of men is much less in those communities where love and support are given. It is also pretty clear, given that the US has the largest per capita prison population (although a lot of that is due to our draconian drug laws) that male violence and aggression follows cultural patterns as well.

    And there has been outcry against the testosterone explanation, both for violence and for sexual promiscuity. That is because blaming such problems on testosterone seems to let men off the hook. In the same way, and this is why I really think Summers is being raked over the coals, is that highlighting the alleged differences between men and women seems to get the university off the hook – i.e., “chicks don’t dig science, so it’s not our fault.”

    If affinity for the competitive environment, as opposed to ability or affinity for the subject matter, is the reason for the differences, then it would make sense to change the environment, because that is one reason why discrimination may not be disappearing from our universities. One need not make the courses any less challenging to find ways to make all students more comfortable in the sciences.

  19. #19 tess
    January 27, 2005

    Hi, new here, but I would like to add my two cents about Summer’s alleged statements:

    I had a very hard time putting my finger on what it was that bothered me about Summer’s alleged speech and why it caused quite an uproar, and I think I’ve figured it out: language. Summer has implied quite heavily that the primary reason that women are not on the fast-track to tenure is because of “inate” qualities associated with biology while dismissing sociological arguments using the anecdotal example of his own daughter being given toy trucks. It suggests (to me, at the very least) that at a personal level he does not believe that women as a whole have the “inate” qualities to become scientists in fields such as physics, and in mathematics, and could quite possibly be part of the reason that under his tenure there has been a general drop in hiring of female professors.

    I’m probably quite off track, but just from my own perspective as a female in engineering, to hear something like that can be quite disheartening especially in fields where it’s common to be the only woman in your class so you already tend to feel out of place.

  20. #20 Ed Brayton
    January 27, 2005

    I had a very hard time putting my finger on what it was that bothered me about Summer’s alleged speech and why it caused quite an uproar, and I think I’ve figured it out: language. Summer has implied quite heavily that the primary reason that women are not on the fast-track to tenure is because of “inate” qualities associated with biology while dismissing sociological arguments using the anecdotal example of his own daughter being given toy trucks. It suggests (to me, at the very least) that at a personal level he does not believe that women as a whole have the “inate” qualities to become scientists in fields such as physics, and in mathematics, and could quite possibly be part of the reason that under his tenure there has been a general drop in hiring of female professors.

    For all I know, Lawrence Summers may be a complete misogynist; I really know very little about him personally. But I can’t imagine he is stupid enough to believe that women don’t have the innate qualities to become scientists. But there is at least a plausible argument to be made that a lower percentage of women have that aptitude, just as there is a plausible argument to be made that a lower percentage of men have the aptitude to be good at English or the humanities. That argument may turn out to be totally false, but more likely it will turn out to be true but counteracted by many other factors in the normal and complex interplay of genetics and environment. At the very least, it is quite reasonable to say that genetics must play some role in this and that we ought not to assume automatically that it doesn’t, and certainly ought not to try to destroy the careers of those who suggest the possibility.

  21. #21 tess
    January 27, 2005

    I’m sorry if I was not being clear:

    From my own understanding of his language, he dismisses other factors outside of the “inate” qualities. I’m not saying that the idea of biology affecting the course of development isn’t a key factor, or that it’s even a major or minor factor, but his apparent derision of sociological/environmental factors affecting intelligence in all it’s many-faceted glory is what bothered me. And I think that is a very important distinction to make; he seemed to not merely suggest it, but advocated that it was the primary explanation.

  22. #22 Ed Brayton
    January 27, 2005

    From my own understanding of his language, he dismisses other factors outside of the “inate” qualities. I’m not saying that the idea of biology affecting the course of development isn’t a key factor, or that it’s even a major or minor factor, but his apparent derision of sociological/environmental factors affecting intelligence in all it’s many-faceted glory is what bothered me. And I think that is a very important distinction to make; he seemed to not merely suggest it, but advocated that it was the primary explanation.

    I just haven’t seen anything that suggested that at all. Do you have a direct quote attributed to him that indicated that he rejected all non-genetic or non-innate explanations for it? I can’t imagine anyone in his position could be quite that ignorant. From what I’ve seen, he didn’t say anything like that, but a lot of people immediately leapt from what he did say to that much more absurd caricature.

  23. #23 tess
    January 27, 2005

    I’m sorry, but I don’t have direct quotations.

    So if he didn’t mean to suggest that he believes that biological factors are a primary factor, do you have any information that he suggested other reasons for the disparity? From what I gathered, he only brought up biology. If he didn’t mean to offend, wouldn’t he have also brought up other factors? To me, bringing up just one factor for something this complex is akin to attributing higher rates of car accidents among left-handers to their “inate” neurological differences rather than acknowledge that the foot on the pedal is not the same the same one they would use to test their footing.

  24. #25 Ed Brayton
    January 27, 2005

    So if he didn’t mean to suggest that he believes that biological factors are a primary factor, do you have any information that he suggested other reasons for the disparity? From what I gathered, he only brought up biology.

    From what I’ve read, this is what Summers said. First, he said right up front that he was going to offer some provocative possibilities based upon some of the research that had been presented at the conference. The three possibilities were:

    First, that perhaps women were less willing than men to devote exclusive energy and 80 hour work weeks to the job instead of to their family;

    Second, that men tended to score both much higher and much lower than the average on math and science aptitude tests, meaning there were more men at the top, from whom an elite college would be likely to recruit, but also more at the bottom, while women’s scores tended to be more spread out along a typical bell curve;

    Third, discrimination by universites in hiring male faculty over female faculty. But on the third, he also noted that by the time universities got to the point of recruiting faculty, the numbers were already skewed toward men because far fewer women go into the sciences in the first place, and that the discrepancies in both the interest in and aptitude for math and science showed up in junior high and high school. That means that even if discrimination accounts for the bulk of the problem, it must be addressed at some point long before the university hiring process in order to insure an adequate pool of qualified applicants. And on the third, he also apparently raised the possibility that one factor in explaining why more men go into those fields than women might be innate.

    So there are a couple arguments I’ve been making and I think they remain true. First, none of the possibilities he raised should be considered out of bounds. All are interesting possibilities, and even if one or all of them turn out to be false (which is highly unlikely), we can only ultimately find out they’re false if people are allowed to hypothesize on it and test those hypotheses. Second, that the opponents of what he said are building a straw man and kicking the shit out of it as though it represented what he said. They act as though he said, “it’s all biological, so who cares”, and that’s nonsense. He offered that up as one possible aspect of the answer. It’s not an either/or betweeen nature and environment, it is almost certainly some combination. I suspect all three things that he mentioned are true to some degree, and there are other reasons as well. The notion that there is one single thing that is the sole explanation for the discrepancy is absurd. And thirdly, that the kneejerk reaction in this circumstance is limited to this circumstance. Had he made those comments in any other context, the same people who are now screaming for his head would have no difficulty understanding the non-caricatured version of what he said as reasonable. I think all three of those things remain true.

    Virtually lost in the discussion is any question of whether what he said was true or not. Even if he had said “biology plays a primary role in determining the relatively low number of women on math and science faculties at universities”, even if that is completely false, is it so ridiculously out of bounds that people are calling for his head? Surely biology plays some role in it, as it does in virtually everything else. In a speech where a guy says, “I’m going to throw out some provocative ideas here”, it doesn’t mean he’s necessarily advocating them as true but could mean he’s just trying to challenge people to confront difficult and unpleasant ideas. I always thought that was what academia was supposed to do. Even if he’s dead wrong, the response should be to point out why he’s wrong, not to put on a public show trial for apostasy. My main objection here is to the fevered emotional response to this, as though he advocated eating the organs of children on national television. Even if his suggestions were 100% false, the right response is intellectual in an academic setting, not political.

  25. #26 Ed Brayton
    January 27, 2005

    raj-

    I went to the first post you linked to and found a couple things. First, he raises some good arguments for why the role of biology may be far less important than socialization in this regard. He may well be right. As I’ve said previously, Summers may be almost completely wrong. I find it inconceivable that genetics doesn’t play some role in the issue, but that role may well be quite small and dwarfed by the cumulative effects of socialization and/or discrimination. My primary argument is that the only way to find that out is to raise the question and do the research necessary to answer it, rather than treat any suggestion other than the approved answer as taboo. But I also notice that even though he provides some very good and rational arguments, he still can’t help but create a straw man to attack. He says:

    Odd how you never here the Pinkers and Murrays complaining about this affront to American individualism or asserting this is proof that women are naturally smarter than men, isn’t it? As soon as they apply their tautologies consistently and are willing to fight for undergraduate classes that are predominantly female, I’ll listen to their arguments about how male domination of math faculties is how nature intended it.

    There’s that caricature again. I’ve never seen Pinker say anything like an “affront to American individualism”. Murray may well have, but Murray is an ideological crank who is best ignored. There is certainly no justification for lumping the two together. And Pinker sure as hell didn’t say anything like “male domination of math faculties is how nature intended it” or that women are smarter than men. Even if it turns out that men and women have different statistical distributions of skills at different tasks, it absolutely does NOT mean that one is smarter htan the other, or that there aren’t lots of people within both groups that are very good at all tasks.

    This is just old fashioned well poisoning, lumping serious researchers with reasonable views in with people like Murray. Not all attempts to find genetic inputs to behavior is Hitler-inspired eugenics, for crying out loud. It’s too bad, because the rest of his post was good and may well have good reasons for thinking that the possibilities raised by Summers may pale in comparison to non-innate factors. It’s too bad that even with those good arguments, he still felt the need to create a straw man of his opponents’ views to ease the way.

  26. #27 Dan S.
    January 27, 2005

    Every mention of this incident should include the following sentence near the beginning: “Since Summers became President of Harvard, the percent of women who have been offered tenured positions on the Faculty of Arts and Sciences has dropped dramatically.” I have no idea whether Summers is actually responsible for this (does sound unlikely in any direct sense), but it would seem to be a rather important bit of context for understanding both his remarks and the responses.

    From what I’ve read, this is what Summers said. . .
    This account (Ed/5:43) is more detailed and somewhat different form what I’ve previously read (The NY Times, the Boston Globe, etc.) If this is accurate, he at least mentioned the possibility of previous discrimination, but seems to be downplaying in this in favor of biology.

    As CPT Doom and (especially) Tess mentioned, I think the reason people are building straw men is that Summers gave them so much straw. The bio stuff (with an unavoidable history, in various incarnations, of being used to explain why women shouldn’t vote, become doctors, or go to college) really stands out, against a background of social factors that appear to be greatly downplayed or framed very specifically. Take his first suggestion, which he ranked as the most probable: ‘that,’ in Ed’s words, ‘perhaps women were less willing than men to devote exclusive energy and 80 hour work weeks to the job instead of to their family;’ As I mentioned, this is a real issue, but put this way, women are described as lacking, without addressing the reasons this career path is set up this way. And why, we are implicitly asked would they rather be a mommy than a scientist? By apparently not further discussing it, Summers might seem to endorse the default (and entirely possible) answer – they’re built that way. It’s BIOLOGY! Why do middle and highschool girls show less interest and aptitude in math and science? wellmaybeitsremnantdiscrimination OR IT COULD BE BIOLOGY! Now stop your sniveling and get back in the kitchen, woman!

    OK, I’m exaggerating a little there at the end . . .

    I find it very interesting that tess brings up her own experience and perspective as a female in engineering. I suspect that what mey be happening in some of the discussions on this incident is that you get people talking who are very intelligent, but either 1) lack the experience/ knowledge of historical or social context to see behind the comments (or at least to see what’s offending folks) or 2) are one of *those* people – y’know, quite smart in some domains, but lacking any feel for social nuances, focused strongly on reason, logic, and literal-ness in human interactions in a way that obscures other aspects. There was an interesting anecdote on some comment thread about someone’s ex-girlfriend the astrophysicist who insisted that she never felt any discrimination even though the guy constantly saw obvious examples of fairly chauvinistic behavior . . . (hey, if Summers can pull out his daughter’s toy trucks . . .)

    -Dan S.

  27. #28 tess
    January 28, 2005

    Ed,

    Thanks for clarifying the issue. I wasn’t completely aware of the full context of Summer’s comments, and though I’ll admit that it still leaves me with a bit of eye-rolling at this stage, I’ll leave any (further) judgement until I can get my hands on a transcript.

    Dan,

    I brought it the personal issue of being a female in engineering as a social context for my own reaction to Summer’s alleged comments. From what I understood to be Summer’s comments, they were an affront. I never said anything along the lines of, “This is what he said, let’s lynch him for social heresy,” but rather wanted to explain why from what I understood at the time were supposedly the connotation of his comments I found offensive.

  28. #29 Dan S.
    January 28, 2005

    tess –
    “I brought it the personal issue of being a female in engineering as a social context for my own reaction to Summer’s alleged comments”

    Sorry! – I was writing fast and I don’t think it came out quite right at all. I was trying to say how lots of (*other*) folks seem to be talking about this without having any relevant social context of the kind you and many other people have, or are just kinda tone deaf to these sorts of issues for other reasons – I was basically agreeing with you. Not big on lynching him either . . .

    -Dan S.

  29. #30 Greg Jorgensen
    January 28, 2005

    CPT Doom wrote:
    Actually, it is unclear how much the testosterone level really plays in male aggression. It is also very true that male aggression patterns are much more complicated than the old ultra-feminist adage of “men violent, women wonderful.”

    More complicated, sure, but linked almost without doubt. For the large majority of mammalian species male aggression and promiscuity are the rule. Simple experiments that change the levels of testosterone and/or estrogen in either male or female individuals demonstrate increases or decreases in violence and sexual behavior.

    Crime in all its forms is very much tied to poverty, neglect and child abuse, and the violence of men is much less in those communities where love and support are given.

    That demonstrates how environmental circumstances modify and repress biologically-influenced behaviors. Violent crime is more prevalent among the poor and neglected (in humans and in chimps and rats). Violent behavior that is not criminal — verbal abuse, hitting and kicking inanimate objects, road rage — are still largely male behaviors regardless of social circumstance.

    And there has been outcry against the testosterone explanation, both for violence and for sexual promiscuity. That is because blaming such problems on testosterone seems to let men off the hook.

    Testosterone is responsible for my beard and baldness, but I can’t control those effects. Violent behavior and sexual promiscuity are hormonal tendencies that I can control. Some men have more control, some less, and some have been raised in or live in conditions that reduces their ability to maintain socially acceptable control.

    Mammalian species without social or environmental controls in place offer plenty of real-world observation uncluttered by human sentiment, vanity, shame, and fear.

    In the same way, and this is why I really think Summers is being raked over the coals, is that highlighting the alleged differences between men and women seems to get the university off the hook – i.e., “chicks don’t dig science, so it’s not our fault.”

    I agree with your conclusion, but the differences aren’t “alleged.” Many sexual differences are obvious (my wife thankfully doesn’t have a beard), others show up in statistics (road rage incidents, prison population). I accept the biological factors that make men more prone to violence, because there is plenty of scientific evidence for it. I don’t think there is comparable scientific evidence to back up what Summers said, or what people think he said or meant. Looking at the gender skew among engineers and scientists one can’t conclude that biology is one of the causes: differences in how boys and girls are treated in school could have more to do with it (and probably does).

    Human behavior is a very complicated thing. We cannot ethically experiment on people, so a lot of hypotheses and conclusions are tossed around without real evidence. Animal experiments can only tell us so much — no other species has the social and environmental influences we live with, or the same ability to overcome innate urges by power of mind. Sadly every time a scientist tentatively suggest a genetic or biological explanation for some human behavior, the scientist is attacked and the hypothesis is misused by people with non-scientific agendas.

  30. #31 Greg Jorgensen
    January 28, 2005

    CPT Doom wrote:
    I’m probably quite off track, but just from my own perspective as a female in engineering, to hear something like that can be quite disheartening especially in fields where it’s common to be the only woman in your class so you already tend to feel out of place.

    Your comment, and some of the other reactions from women to Mr. Summers’ claims, actually demonstrate what I think is a difference in how men and women perceive slights, insults, and uncomfortable situations.

    If I found myself in a class full of women I would be concerned about being out of place, too. If I imagine myself in a female-dominated profession, such as nursing, and then imagine a hospital head claiming that women made better nurses than men because women are more empathetic and compassionate, I would feel angry and defiant, not hurt or threatened.

    In my experience women internalize a lot more criticism than men do. Men tend to blame other people for their own real or perceived shortcomings. Not all men and women, of course, but statistically. I have two daughters and one son. If I ask each of them a question I think is emotionally neutral, like “Why are you wearing those shoes?” my daughters will react as if I said “Those shoes are ugly.” My son will either look at his shoes to see what’s wrong with the shoes, or ask me what difference does it make. My older daughter is less likely to change her shoes than my middle daughter, but my son wouldn’t even consider changing his shoes or thinking there was anything wrong with him, his shoes, or his choice of wardrobe.

    Maybe my wife and I have ingrained some kind of shoe neurosis in our daughters, but I think my point is clear and most of us are familiar with that kind gender difference. Asking most men what they weigh is not likely to cause much of an emotional reaction; asking women what they weigh is a social no-no.

    I don’t know what Mr. Summers said, but it seems that he has a history of boorishness and making provocative statements. Perhaps he’s trying to fight the political correctness on campus, in his own way (which seems likely to backfire). But the different ways that men and women interpret his meaning is in itself evidence of innate pesonality and reasoning differences.

  31. #32 Ed Brayton
    January 28, 2005

    tess wrote:

    Thanks for clarifying the issue. I wasn’t completely aware of the full context of Summer’s comments, and though I’ll admit that it still leaves me with a bit of eye-rolling at this stage, I’ll leave any (further) judgement until I can get my hands on a transcript.

    A little eye rolling may well be justified. I want to make clear that the point of this post is not to say that I think biology plays a huge roll in determining the ratio of women to men in a given field, only that it must have some roll, as it has some roll in almost everything, and that the mere mention of that should not be treated as a taboo as it so clearly has been in this situation.

    I suspect that if we could really do the thorough research on this question that it probably deserves, we would likely conclude that the biological aspect is a pretty small component of the answer. I suspect that socialization and discrimination are probably more important components. I just don’t think a moderate and reasonable reading of the comments he made warrant the furor that it created. There may well be other very good reasons to criticize Summers, but they have little to do with the validity of that statement.

    I would also note that even with the most uncharitable reading possible of his comments, they are no worse than some of the absolutely looney nonsense that comes from some circles of academic feminism. One need only point to some of the atrocious crap from postmodern feminists about “women’s ways of knowing” as a contrast to the “masculinist views of objectivity”. The feminist scholar for whom I was a research assistant in college could be made quite livid by the mention of such nonsense. She correctly saw it as undermining the validity of real feminism.

  32. #33 Bill Ware
    January 28, 2005

    Greg,

    I’m reminded of King Solomon’s Ring by Konrad Lorenz and his description of how males and females of various species react differently in the same situation. It’s at Amazon.

  33. #34 Dan S.
    January 28, 2005

    I would also note that even with the most uncharitable reading possible of his comments, they are no worse than some of the absolutely looney nonsense that comes from . . . [ie] postmodern feminists . . .
    And the number of postmodern feminists who are presidents of top-tier universities?

    Summers has certainly succeded at provoking people! All the same, what I’ve heard of his comments make me think of the folks who talk about ‘Darwinists,’ or maybe David Brooks’ NY Times column a few weeks ago about how women should marry right out of college, pop out a couple of kids, enter special grad programs designed for them (this part isn’t a bad idea) as the kids get older, and finally spend years 40 to 70 working . . .

    Asking most men what they weigh is not likely to cause much of an emotional reaction; asking women what they weigh is a social no-no.
    Would you argue that’s *this* is an innate quality, though? Maybe some examples that don’t run along specific cultural definitions like clothes,weight, and assertiveness? Although I suppose any largely innate trait would . . .

    -Dan S.

  34. #35 Greg Jorgensen
    January 29, 2005

    Dan S. wrote:
    Would you argue that’s *this* is an innate quality, though? Maybe some examples that don’t run along specific cultural definitions like clothes,weight, and assertiveness? Although I suppose any largely innate trait would . . .

    Yes, though I can’t offer anything more than anecdotal evidence. As a parent with my own children of both genders, as the oldest of seven children of both genders, and as a friend of many parents, I can say that I certainly believe that boys and girls exhibit different behaviors and reactions that more or less correspond to common stereotypes. Not all of the time — I have a niece who is turning into a wicked hockey player. And no doubt the family environment, peer pressure, and other environmental influences play a big part in shaping adolescent and adult behavior. But when most little boys act a certain way and most little girls act another way, before they’ve had a lot of exposure to peer pressure or discrimination or school, it seems clear that something biological is at work.

    I work in software development, a male-dominated profession, but most of our project managers are women. While testing a recent release I said that we — our team — had not done a great job gathering requirements because we had missed some important cases. The men in the group reacted (predictably) by blaming the requirements process or the users who failed to tell us everything. The female project manager interpreted the same statement as a criticism of her abilities, and took the imagined personal criticism so much to heart that she went home upset and later vented on another manager. And she wasn’t even responsible for the requirements phase. As an insensitive man I never considered the possibility that anyone would take a general criticism of our process as a personal attack, though I should know better because I’ve seen it happen enough times in my career.

  35. #36 Greg Jorgensen
    January 29, 2005

    Ed Brayton wrote:
    I would also note that even with the most uncharitable reading possible of his comments, they are no worse than some of the absolutely looney nonsense that comes from some circles of academic feminism. One need only point to some of the atrocious crap from postmodern feminists about “women’s ways of knowing” as a contrast to the “masculinist views of objectivity”.

    I took a poetry class in college from a feminist teacher who often went off on tangents about her four ex-husbands and how awful they were. One day she asked the class to talk about poems that we had remembered as children or adolescents, and to explain why those poems stuck with us. By then I knew I was supposed to say “Sylvia Plath” no matter what the question, but when she asked me I told how I had memorized a few poems by Kipling when I was a kid, and had later found out that Kipling had written quite a bit of poetry. She actually kicked me out of class after ranting for five minutes about how Kipling was a misogynist and racist. I think she believed I had mentioned Kipling just to bait her, but honestly I didn’t read anything by Sylvia Plath when I was a kid.

  36. #37 Ampersand
    January 29, 2005

    But when most little boys act a certain way and most little girls act another way, before they’ve had a lot of exposure to peer pressure or discrimination or school, it seems clear that something biological is at work.

    I live with a one-year-old, and I’m always amazed at how many of her books either include only very sexist depictions of women and men, or (more often) don’t include women at all. For instance, an otherwise charming book about jungle animals describes every animal as “he.”

    Studies have also shown that adults will treat – and perceive – the same baby differently depending on if they’re told it’s a boy or a girl. It’s not at all clear that gender socialization doesn’t effect babies and young children.

    I remember reading a study of young children – boys and girls – who watched films of either boys or girls playing with a plain white hanky. Boys who saw the film of girls playing with the hanky would refuse to play with a hanky on the grounds that the cloth was “girly”; girls who saw the opposite film refused to play with it because it was a boy thing. Those who saw films of their own sex playing with the hanky were happy to play with the hanky themselves.

    What that suggests is that it may not be so much that certain activities are innate; if anything, the desire of small children to maintain clear boundaries between girls and boys is innate, but the particular ways small children express the division are socialized and flexible. If so, it’s hard to jump from that to a belief that certain activities are innately preferred by boys or girls.

    I’m a cartoonist, so naturally I pay attention to comics. So I know from long experience, it’s hard to have a discussion of why the overwhelming majority of comic book readers are boys without someone suggesting that boys are biologically more visually-oriented. Since girls are language-oriented, it’s only natural that girls prefer reading prose, and boys like comic books more. It’s often suggested that folks who think that social factors are why so few girls read comic books are ignoring science in the name of feminist ideology.

    Stop here. Before you continue, ask yourself if the biological explanation for why (on average) boys and not girls read comics rings true to you.

    Because the truth is, I should have put the paragraph about comics in the past tense. Today, the majority of young comic book readers are girls – by far the best-selling comic books in the USA are manga (translated Japanese comics), which are read mostly by girls.

    In retrospect, it seems obvious that whatever biological factors (if any) may make boys more natural comic book readers, they are utterly dwarfed by social factors. (In this case, what made the difference was a new publishing model for translated manga).

    There was a time when many highly intelligent people of science thought that women were biologically unsuitable for higher education; that women were biologically less likely to make good lawyers (all that logical, rational thinking!); that women were inherently unsuitable for medicine (all that science!); etc.. Heck, there was a time when the idea of female schoolteachers was extremely controversial.

    What would we have thought if we were alive back then? Most of us would have agreed with the consensus (most people do, after all) that apart from a few outliers, most women were biologically unsuited for (fill in the blank).

    I realize, of course, that there are biological differences between the sexes. Nonetheless, I don’t think it makes me a Luddite to suggest that, in physics departments as in comic books, lawyers and schoolteachers, it’s possible that the social factors dwarf the biological.

  37. #38 Dan S.
    January 29, 2005

    For Greg, “the different ways that men and women interpret [Summers'] meaning is in itself evidence of innate pesonality and reasoning differences.”

    There may be, on average, these sorts of innate differences between men and women. However, I think that this response primarily reflects the fact that, whether or not men and women come from different worlds (mars vs. venus blahblah), they certainly grow up in and experience different worlds. Metaphorically, of course. Take a gander at Ampersand’s male privilege checkllist in case this is an unfamiliar idea. Certainly this kind of ‘sensitivity’ (I mean this in the neutral, not the pejorative, sense) is familiar to a number of minority groups within the overlapping hieracrchies of American society, and it seems rather unlikely that the most reasonable explanation would be these sorts of innate differences.

    Whether or not they exist -Greg, perhaps you could try to find better anecdotes? That women and men respond differently to weight queries – the social element is so enormous here that it swamps any other point you might be making; same with the shoes. The work example is a bit better, although this may have so much more to do with the project manager’s specific personality rather than her gender.

    And Greg – you had a bad English prof. It happens. The point is that Summers is a Harvard president in our society. If he was living in some alternate-world matriarchal America, things might be different . . .

  38. #39 Bill Ware
    January 29, 2005

    Greg,

    Didn’t Kipling write that poem “If”

    If I can keep my head
    While all around me,
    Are losing their’s
    And blaming it on me.

    Anyway, I hope that’s the one that came to mind.

  39. #40 Greg Jorgensen
    January 30, 2005

    Ampersand wrote:
    it’s hard to jump from that to a belief that certain activities are innately preferred by boys or girls.

    Dan S. wrote:
    Greg, perhaps you could try to find better anecdotes? That women and men respond differently to weight queries – the social element is so enormous here that it swamps any other point you might be making; same with the shoes.

    I chose my anecdotes to illustrate my point, not to offer as evidence. I don’t know how much biology accounts for differences in male and female behavior, but I believe it does account for some differences. As I wrote earlier human behavior is complicated and greatly influenced by social and environmental factors; I don’t doubt that children learn roles and expectations from parents, siblings, peers, etc.

    I believe our social structures, beginning with the family, have biological roots. Many other social species aren’t influenced by television or fashion magazines or parents, yet distinct gender roles are the norm. Lions, for example, are pretty clearly hard-wired to some degree to collect females and fight off competing males, while lionesses are wired to hunt and raise cubs cooperatively. They don’t learn those behaviors in school — cats and dogs raised apart from other cats and dogs appear to innately understand the rules of cat or dog society. I believe human social organization is somewhat farther removed from biology than that of lions, or termites, but biological and social influences are not independent even for humans. The human tendency to organize hierarchically, and the pervasive xenophobic tendencies, seem likely to have a biological basis, because other primate species have similar tendencies.

    Many discussions like this go sour when some people interpret “difference” as a value judgement. My daughters behave and react differently than my son; they are not better or worse, or more or less qualified, in any sense. They are just different.

    Ampersand: I never got into comics. My oldest daughter reads lots of comics. The comics she reads are not the comics I sometimes read as a kid; there’s a big difference in writing quality (or maybe I didn’t know there were comics better-written than Marvel). I would say that boys are more easily entertained, to a later age, by superhero comics and mindless fantasies like Yu-Gi-Oh. Perhaps girls are reading more comics now because the comics aren’t all infantile hero worship and violence?

  40. #41 Greg Jorgensen
    January 30, 2005

    Bill Ware wrote:
    Didn’t Kipling write that poem “If” …
    Anyway, I hope that’s the one that came to mind.

    I don’t think I had any particular Kipling poem in mind; I had a copy of his Barrack Room Ballads my grandfather had given me, probably the only poetry I had read as a child (and that was what the professor was asked about). I already knew from earlier classes that mentioning Poe was a no-no.

    A few years later I came upon Kipling’s poem The Vampire, which is probably what my professor had in mind when she labelled Kipling a misogynist (as if that term had any meaning in Kiplings world):

    The Vampire by Rudyard Kipling (1897).

    I’m pretty sure men and women have different reactions to that little bit of nastiness. Kipling anticipated Tom Leykis by almost a century.

  41. #42 Bill Ware
    January 30, 2005

    Greg, Thanks for the lynx. B

  42. #43 tess
    January 30, 2005

    Speaking of context, perhaps it might be better to understand the reaction/over-reaction in terms of how groups are perceived; members of minority groups can become oversensitive to comments and jokes that are directed toward them, and taken in the worst way possible. It’s somewhat difficult adjusting to being a social outlyer, especially if that’s not what the individual wanted, and so the individual conditions him/herself to either detect or completely ignore any apparent differences in treatment based on the bias experienced.

    Just a thought.

  43. #44 Dan S.
    January 30, 2005

    They don’t learn those behaviors in school — cats and dogs raised apart from other cats and dogs appear to innately understand the rules of cat or dog society.

    To a degree. If you take a newborn puppy or kitten away from its mother and raise it, I’m pretty sure you end up with a somewhat odd dog or cat, one who will understand many rules of their respective society, but not nearly as many as one who has been socialized by their own species. Even more so with apes previously raised alone in zoos – although some of that is doubtlessly, unfortunately deprivation.

    I suspect we all agree that there are various probable kinds of innate influences on human behavior. It is important to keep in mind the possible roles of social and environmental factors (as you mention), not least *because* people interpret difference as a value judgement. You may be perfectly fine with your sons and daughters being different, but if your daughter ends up being paid less or barred from certain opportunities because of differences that are 1)unproven, 2) irrelevent, or 3)rules of thumb that do not provide information about your daughter’s actual capacities, that would be kinda sucky.

    I chose my anecdotes to illustrate my point

    I’m not sure they do a good job of it, though. I wouldn’t criticize you for this ordinarily, but it’s an important issue that people should really think out. To me, those examples suggested that you might not have as much as you could. Weight?! C’mon.

    Perhaps girls are reading more comics now because the comics aren’t all infantile hero worship and violence?

    Quite possibly. The point is that whatever determined liking of comic books, any major innate factors are elsewhere, not in differential visual/verbal abilities, but at best in impulses towards different kinds of stories – which unquestionably does have a strong social component on top of anything else. It’s important to think carefully about where these differences might lie, because different answers suggest different actions. If women are in fact underrepresented in science largely because of say, partially-innate factors predisposing women towards childrearing, that’s a very different thing from saying that the major reason is innate differences related to spatial abilities or etc – *especially* because we could, if we wished, figure out ways to make family life and the tenure track more compatable, while these is presumably relatively little we could do about aeons of natural selection in terms of making comples stone tools and throwing them at moving targets (or whatever) – or at least, we’d want to do different things.

    -Dan S.

  44. #45 Also Greg Jorgensen
    March 15, 2007

    The prison systems populations do not necessarily indicate that men are more violent than women or that they commit more crime. Men statistically can cause more damage when they get violent. I suspect that women may just get violent as often as men. These crimes are under-reported. Prison population infers a higher rate of prosecution.
    If you look at death row you will find that overwhelmingly more men are executed than women. Also, in the event that you find a woman who was executed, notice that she is almost guaranteed to have killed a woman. If she killed a man she is more likely to be considered a folk hero than get a death sentence.
    Additionaly, men are wimps if they report that they got beat up by a woman. Personnaly I find it hard to understand why some women make the decisions that they do. I find some thought processes unreasonable. But hey, I’m just a man. I don’t totally understand women any more than they get me.
    Also note that there is a hormonal defense for women in the courtroom. Post partem depression can be used as a defense for murder. Men have no such recourse if testosterone levels lead to aggression.

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