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01/30/2005

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David

Let's imagine that Summers had made the same comment but had substituted Jews, Blacks, Hispanics, or Asians for women. (And let's imagine that there was a statistical disparity for these groups as well). Would anyone be defending what he said? And if not, why is anyone defending him now?

If I read Judge Posner's post correctly, he believes that Summers acted irresponsibly by making the comment, because it was not supported by evidence and brought bad publicity to his institution. Why then was it wrong to apologize? A good leader is not just one who shows strength but also one who is willing to admit error. Summers made the right decision, politically and academically, to make clear that he did not believe there is any evidence that gender affects the ability of women to excel in science. Certainly, it is not in Harvard's interest to alienate all egalitarian-minded members of the American public, including the large portion of its students, alumni, faculty, and contributors.

Corey

I read this as yet another example of the failure of standardized tests to reflect anything
useful.

If variation on a science test between genders is unequal but performance in undergraduate science is not varied, then the obvious conclusion is, that test does not measure likely performance in undergraduate science. If the test does not even accurately predict the thing it was created to predict, then it most certainly should never be used as evidence of a biological difference between genders. It should be used to wipe the floor.

Further, Ph.D level science achievement can't be tested in a standardized way. Most if not all tests get less accurate towards the curve tails.

Discrimination has perhaps lessened in recent years but the stress should be on "recent." Since in this case, "discrimination" is likely to manifest itself in the way young girls are socialized to prefer certain activities, it would take at least a generation for any change in thinking about gender roles to translate into enough of a change in child-rearing that a change in career selection could be observed.

Seems like Harvard is never content without a scandal for all of its students to complain about in every restaurant on the square. As for Summers, all I can say is that anyone who would say that women are less willing to make time sacrifices to science careers has never tried to date in Cambridge MA.

Palooka

"If variation on a science test between genders is unequal but performance in undergraduate science is not varied, then the obvious conclusion is, that test does not measure likely performance in undergraduate science. If the test does not even accurately predict the thing it was created to predict, then it most certainly should never be used as evidence of a biological difference between genders. It should be used to wipe the floor."

You're confusing the issue, as Posner noted many of Summers critics also did. You're speaking of two different populations--all women who take college admissions tests and all women undergraduate science majors. Aslong as there are fewer women than men in undegraduate science majors, there is no indication that standardized tests are producing any result which is counterintuitive.

To quote Posner from his post, "This will affect the relative number of the two populations in the tails; it may or may not affect the average quality of the members of each population who are in the tails."

Solyom

What everyone is missing, or in this case ironically assuming is that men and women are equally predisposed to careers in science. My unscientific guess is this is not true. Women are not as likely pursue careers in hard science as men, not b/c of lack of intelligence, but b/c they are at some level they find it less attractive as a career than do men. See Pinker's 'Blank Slate' for a fair and balanced take on this.

Fred

I fear the first commenter didn't quite understand Judge Posner's argument. The commenter says no one would dare defend Summers if "women" had been substituted with "Jews," "Blacks," "Hispanics" or "Asians."

Posner has already replied to this claim. First, he differentiates between sexual differences and ethnic differences, saying the latter is such a hot potato that, it's true, most (all?) academics are afraid to research any biological differences, or even speak about them publicly. And if I understand Posner correctly, he thinks, nevertheless, there's no reason, if we are truly seeking knowledge at universities, not to look into it.

But more important, sexual differences, though still a tender subject, aren't quite as impossible to discuss, because there are very obvious differences between men and women, and not just cultural ones. (Posner as a judge also knows that the strict scrutiny given to racial distinctions is not quite the same when it comes to sex--note we don't have to draft women along with men, and we still have separate bathrooms by sex.) A biological explanation as to why men are better (on average) than women in basketball is completely non-controversial (I hope). In today's world of evolutionary psychology, there are solid theories as to why females and males of the same species may have different brains that view the world differently. If this is so, it's not hard to imagine that men and women may tend to have different talents, and that such biologically based differences are at least worth exploring.

RWS

One of the bigger reasons for the difference, I think, is the unusually intense drive of young males to succeed and/or distinguish themselvesto win the prize and get the girl, as the story has gone for several million years now among many or most species. This drive yields many blockbuster successes and major failures, which may be one reason why males dominate the inmate population. Is anyone saying that the domination of the convict community by males is the result of social pressures? That is one explanation for why males tend to exhibit higher variance, especially in fields that require a virtual fixation on success to excel in, such as math and science. It may not even be a significant difference between the genders in raw intelligence, whatever that might be, as it is a difference in variance regarding the drive for success-at-all-costs in a narrow, specialized, and often significantly tedious field.

Dpin

I think one of the reasons people resist looking at biological determinants is because:
a- in the past this type of argument has been made to justify certain prejudices (at one point, looking at the relative width of a person's nose was considered an adequate way of determining that person's propensity to commit crimes)
b- more importantly, I think it is hard to distinguish from natural and social factors. Let's look at the olympics: a century certainly is not enough time for the gene pool to change considerably, and yet results vary greatly, not only across time, but certainly across space. Yes, certain biological characteristics matter a lot, like the fact that men have relatively more muscles than women. Still, the gap between male and female athletes is closing, and I am certain that a 19th century male athlete would not even be competitive in some events against 21st century women (whatever their genetic make up might be). That points to certain social factors being heavily influential: the fact that sports nowadays involve large sums of money (at least in the US), that it has become an accepted profession (something important specially for women), that large quantities of money are spent in trying to come up with better training, better materials, better technique... How to explain the difference in performances across countries, especially given the superiority of the US in athletic events? Certainly I think this is not a question of nature vs nurture, but that these two things interact. Unfortunatelly every major study that I've seen about the biological determinants of something end up simply using some sort of correlation between observed characteristics of a population and a socially determined outcome, without taking other factors into account (i.e., to understand why some people jump higher than others, you should have to look not only at the biological make up of a person, but also at the "nurturing" of that ability, and even at the reason why such an ability is socially valued at all...)

Johnnie

Solyom and Fred,

Desmond Morris (_The Naked Ape_, McGraw-Hill, 1967, p. 236) asserts that girls appear to have a more instinctive fear of spiders than boys. Supposing this to be true, the following experiment could be set up:

Economics and other sciences employ graphs, which are suggestive of spiders and their webs. Test one group of boys and girls on their learning of material that includes graphs; test the control group with material that does not include graphs.

Anonymous

I think you underestimate the potential benefits of Summers' comments. While Summers is not an expert on gender differences, he is in enough of a public position that any issue he highlights, especially in a contraversial manner, could become fodder for the media as it did in this case. Apology notwithstanding, perhaps Summers was hoping this would ignite a series of newspaper columns dealing with this usually-taboo subject. Saletan proved to be helpful to his cause (i.e., getting the word out that gender differences should be studied). But then he underestimated the reaction, not realizing it would be so vociferous, leading to his "weak" apology.

Paul N

I disagree with Posner's evaluation that "...the benefit of Summerss speaking out was small." The amount of attention Summers's comments generated have made many people aware of the contentiousness of the issue, and have undoubtedly inspired many to think carefully about this issue for the first time.

Perhaps Summers was exactly right to use his position of power to bring this issue to the public's attention (even if he didn't do it intentionally). If the president of the US's most famous university should be allowed to argue for anything, shouldn't it be for increased scientific investigation into hot societal issues?

David

To respond to Fred: my point is not that genetic differences should not be explored. I do not wish to stifle science. The question is whether a university president should make a remark that will be perceived by many as sexist when there is no scientific evidence justifying the statement? The answer should be a resounding no, and a president who makes such a mistake should promptly apologize. The more mea culpas the better.

No one disputes that Andy Roddick could beat Serena Williams on a tennis court. That is a real difference backed up by empirical evidence. But there is no such evidence that Roddick has a genetic advantage over Williams in chemistry or physics. Lacking any such evidence, it is politically foolish, and academically unjustified, to make such a suggestion. Especially when there is an easy and compelling explanation for the lower number of women in science, socialization, which is staring us right in the face.

This is one case where the conventional wisdom is correct. It is not an issue of free speech or academic freedom. It is a basic question of prudence and respect. Unsupported theories that play into the hands of bigots should not be uttered by a university president under the guise of "academic freedom."

TheWinfieldEffect

I appreciate greatly the rigorous clarity of Posner's post. I will respond to his points one by one.

1. Did Summers send the wrong signal by raising the issue, given the low value of his non-expert opinion? Yes, if you find credible "stereotype threat." Summers perhaps discouraged female science students to perform worse and not to pursue a career in the hard sciences:

This theory, known as "stereotype threat," is defined by psychologist Claude M. Steele of Stanford University as "the threat of being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype."
...
Steele and his colleagues, Joshua Aronson of New York University and Steven Spencer of the University of Waterloo, alerted black and white students that a challenging verbal quiz would measure their abilities. The black students then performed measurably worse than the whites, even though the students selected were statistically equivalent in ability level.
...
But when the researchers told the students that the quiz was a lab task that did not measure ability -- thus making the stereotype about ability irrelevant -- the blacks' performance matched the whites'.

2. What is attributable to the decline in hiring at Harvard since Summers has been President? According to Virgina Valian, a professor of psychology who studies gender bias in a Washington Post live discussion:

Prague, The Czech Republic: Hiring of women in the sciences at Harvard has declined from 37 percent since Summers has been president. Even if Summers' statements were not those later attributed to him by attendees driven to hysteria by his comments, isn't discrimination a more likely cause of the decline than differences between the structure of male and female brains? Or is that incorrect?

Virginia Valian: The decline in the hiring of women was startling, but any single year can be a fluke. You need a run of several years in order to detect a pattern. But your overall point is of course correct. If anything, the pool of talented women is larger every year, so a decline in hiring is better attributed to lack of attention to a diverse pool of candidates than to a decline in qualified women.

3. Did Summers have a fiduciary duty to shut his trap?
No. The female head of the Harvard Corporation has said Summers has done nothing wrong. He will not be fired for this. He hasn't harmed Harvard's brand, according to the people who count.

4. Is Posner permitted to comment publicly on pending or impending cases? Yes and no. He commented on the Lewinsky matter, and nothing happened after that, except major liberal gnat Ronald Dworkin gave Posner a tongue-lashing in the New York Review of Books. Dworkin may be wrong on this, but Posner is adopting Dworkin's standard which includes both IM-pending as well as pending because he doesn't want far ranging discussions like the affirmative action nonsense that raged after he wrote about profiling.

5. Does Summers' apology = weakness and does weakness = further concessions in the form of diversity hiring? Probably. But if so, the hiring won't be diverity hiring. It will be the hiring of rich, highly-educated, white women. That's who is lobbying Summers for more hiring of "women".

6. Was the apology a compounding error? Yes, so Summers should only hire conservative transgendered "women" and black conservative women scientists as a concession. That'll show those socialist feminists!

7. The substantive issue. If discrimination is conceded as major impediment to women, doesn't that imply that the average woman is batter than the average man? No! Let's say in Reality men are, on average, a 5 at science, women a 4. Our perception of male and female aptitude is respectively +1 and -1. On average then, our perception would 6 for men and 3 for women. An inaccurate gauge, but still overall correct -- men on average are better than women. So if we have a woman who is a 4 and a man who is a 5, is there a gross injustice done? No. There is an exagerrate perception, but the right hiring decision is still made (the better candidate is still chosen). When the woman is a 6 and the man is a 4 -- in other words, if the woman is exceptional and the man is sub-par -- a gross injustice will be done, because the woman will be underrated and the man will be overrated. That leads to bad decision-making. The end result is not that women are overrated, as Posner says, but that exceptional women are underrated.

8. If Summers is right and women are less likely exceptional, but also less likely idiots, that only points out that we should scrutinize more closely individuals so that exceptional women are not overlooked. Whether the basis for the dearth of exceptional women is biological is irrelevant, in part because "a decline in hiring is better attributed to lack of attention to a diverse pool of candidates than to a decline in qualified women." (Virginia Valian, Professor of Psychology, Hunter College, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A47055-2005Jan29.html) It may be provocative, so kudos to Summers for bringing it up! But there's no reason to underrate individuals by using an exaggerated cultural shorthand: in other words, there's no excuse for profiling women in science.

9. This ties into the "abritariness" discussion that Palooka and the other Palooka(???) were having about profiling. Generalizations may work in a good number of situations, but they aren't very good at accounting for the exceptions, and there's no reason to discourage exceptional individuals from joining academia on the basis of criteria that don't accurately evaluate what they have to offer. So, arbitariness = bad.

Kirk H. Sowell

Two responses to the first commentator's point about this being like comments on Jews, blacks, etc. One, Posner does not say there is no evidence supporting Summers' assertion, and he mentions the issue of variance. I think a different way of making the same point is to say that the male IQ distribution has a larger standard deviation than the female IQ distribution. That is, men and women have the same average IQ, but there are more males at the extreme ends of the spectrum, more really dumb and really intelligent males than females. I am not a psychometrician, but I believe that is in fact the case (Judge Posner may be able to confirm or disconfirm this).

Two, I suspect that the comments by David and Dpin suggesting that prejudice is behind recognizing sex differences are based on prejudice - an unexamined ideological tenet. Have you two really studied this? It is my experience that few (if any) who dogmatically claim that there are no none have studied the anthropological evidence on this issue. It is just that there is a forboding environment at universities, especially law schools.

John Smith

"I think a different way of making the same point is to say that the male IQ distribution has a larger standard deviation than the female IQ distribution. That is, men and women have the same average IQ, but there are more males at the extreme ends of the spectrum, more really dumb and really intelligent males than females."

I think that's exactly right; that's what Posner describes with his bell curves.

Mitch

"So the benefit of Summerss speaking out was small."

A large benefit of Summer's speaking out has been to make cyrstal clear the climate of intimidation and suppression regarding the discussion of "gender". The message below, which is circulating on the internet, is truly astonishing.

kurye

Two responses to the first commentator's point about this being like comments on Jews, blacks, etc. One, Posner does not say there is no evidence supporting Summers' assertion, and he mentions the issue of variance. I think a different way of making the same point is to say that the male IQ distribution has a larger standard deviation than the female IQ distribution. That is, men and women have the same average IQ, but there are more males at the extreme ends of the spectrum, more really dumb and really intelligent males than females. I am not a psychometrician

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