Hypothesis as thought-crime
January 31, 2005 6:10 PM   Subscribe

Hypothesis as thought-crime...Now, however, a new brouhaha has erupted [at Harvard]and it seems impossible that Summers [the president]will emerge from this one without serious erosion of his moral authority. The trigger was a statement he made at a conference, suggesting that the reason there are more men than women in the mathematical sciences at top-flight institutions has to do with a small statistical difference in inate ability, which becomes a pretty large disparity when one looks at the 'high end' of the respective distribution curves... The fatal words did not set forth his main theme, but merely constituted a brief aside, thoroughly hedged and qualified. Nonetheless, they touched off a firestorm of indignation, the most striking aspect of which was the intemperate response of a number of feminist scientists, who offered no counter-arguments, but simply declared the whole idea misogynistic and therefore forbidden intellectual territory.
posted by Postroad (71 comments total)

 
this response seems fairly typical of women.
emotional, dramatic operatives as they are.

just an idea, not my opinion.
posted by jungturk at 6:13 PM on January 31, 2005


</sarcasm>
posted by jungturk at 6:14 PM on January 31, 2005


Why is the whole idea so hard to swallow for some people? It would be laughable to argue that men and women do not have real and significant physical differences... on what basis can we conclude that those differences are limited to the physical and that mentally we are exactly the same? Wouldn't Occam's Razor suggest that if there are clear physical differences there may well be cognitive differences?

It's just stupid to reject that hypothesis without serious study. Especially on the basis of nothing but wishful thinking.
posted by Justinian at 6:16 PM on January 31, 2005


double post
posted by casu marzu at 6:19 PM on January 31, 2005


People seem to have a tough time understanding that "equality" is not the same as "equivalence". It would totally suck if we were identical in all ways.
posted by nightchrome at 6:23 PM on January 31, 2005


Here's a good article from the NYT that basically rounds up some of the research in this area. My opinion is basically summed up by this quote:

Dr. Urry cited a 1983 study in which 360 people - half men, half women - rated mathematics papers on a five-point scale. On average, the men rated them a full point higher when the author was "John T. McKay" than when the author was "Joan T. McKay." There was a similar, but smaller disparity in the scores the women gave.

Dr. Spelke, of Harvard, said, "It's hard for me to get excited about small differences in biology when the evidence shows that women in science are still discriminated against every stage of the way."


The reason it's a stupid idea--and it is, IMO, very stupid--is because there are about a million factors that no doubt contribute to the smaller number of women in the sciences. Many of these factors are well-documented. To explain away the difference as the inevitable result of biological difference is to say, in effect, that those cultural and educational factors don't matter.

It's a well-known fact (covered in the NYT article) that, while in America boys outperform girls in math, the opposite is true in Iceland, where girls outperform boys. Does this mean that girls in Iceland have better math genes than boys? No. It means that cultural factors have a fair amount of power in determining performance.

No one is denying that there are no differences between men and women--obviously there are. But the simple correlation of physical difference with differences in performance does not indicate causation. It's frustrating to hear Summers say something so reductive.
posted by josh at 6:24 PM on January 31, 2005


Ooops. Strike my post and insert snarky double-post callout instead.
posted by Justinian at 6:25 PM on January 31, 2005


Occam's Razor? When given the choice between two explanations choose the most parsiminous? Why is this explanation particularly parsiminous over others, which is that as women begin to particpate more fully in work outside the home, certain careers will be chosen by women at a slower rate because of other variables, such as renumeration or the society's failure to effectively utilize female talent in the sciences?
posted by Ironmouth at 6:26 PM on January 31, 2005


It's just stupid to make an assumption about "inate ability" and call it a hypothesis without serious study. Especially on the basis of nothing but wishful thinking.

But then, those standards don't apply to Presidents of Prestigious Universities, because you KNOW they are in their positions due to being the smartest people in the world.
posted by wendell at 6:27 PM on January 31, 2005


I'm also surprised by the surprise so many folks register when this type of thinking is called out as misogynist. Summers suggested that there aren't as many women in the sciences because their brains are not as good at science as the brains of men--i.e., they are stupider at science. And you have to be a "feminist scientist" to be offended?

Anyway, this is old territory already covered in the last thread I suppose.... But I must say that this type of 'scientific' thinking drives me crazy to no end. It reminds me of an article in the New Yorker a while back where scientists showed that people have an innate ability to get over feelings of grief by asking participants to predict how unhappy they would be if they ~just~ missed a subway train as they were arriving on the platform. It turned out that, after it happened, people would be less disappointed than they'd thought they would be. Aha: innate characteristic! Universal quality of human nature! So that's why Gertrude married Claudius so soon....
posted by josh at 6:33 PM on January 31, 2005


This writer seems to think that there's a conspiracy to stifle anyone who thinks that Summers' remarks could possibly be true. In fact, Nancy Hopkins herself has acknowledged that it's possible that women wouldn't be exactly as good as men in some areas even if there were no discrimination. The problem with what Summers said is the overall context (men dominate academic fields that women are "genetically better" at, but no one's complaining about that) and the tone (a patronizing anecdote about one's toddler daughter playing with a truck is not the way to get a reasoned debate going about this.)

From the article:

The percentage of women mathematicians and physicists at elite departments has crept up only fitfully and slowly, in contrast to sciences like biology, where parity between the sexes is much closer to realisation.

So his own field (mathematics) is safe from the estrogen influx. Whew. But Summers' remarks, which lumped all sciences into the category of things women aren't good at, made sense how?
posted by transona5 at 6:37 PM on January 31, 2005


My theory is that it all goes back ancient times with men being hunters and women staying home and cooking, raising children, etc. Men explored, women stayed back at home. Men are more apt to explore (science and math) and women do incredibly well in areas like the liberal arts because they have a firmer grip on culture, which in ancient times, they passed on to their young. Not to say that both areas don't overlap genders, but I am overgeneralizing. I notice this especially with girls and computers. Boys don't mind exploring and figuring things out on their own for hours and hours, but girls get frustrated more easily and give up. It's definitely a cultural phenomenon, nothing to do with the different capacities of women and men's brains, IMO.
posted by banished at 6:37 PM on January 31, 2005


Won't this scandal die already?

The problem is not that Summers made a hypothesis, it's that he did it in a thoroughly horrible context which lent it all sorts of loathesome connotations. It's just obvious to everyone that sex differences can lead to faculty disparities. But it's also crashingly obvious that those aren't the only reasons that there are disparities - not by a long shot. When Summers goes on at length about inequality being the result of gender differences (and he did not hedge his remarks as much as this post would leave you to believe), it comes across as a statement: Leave me alone; it's probably nature that's determined the number of women professors, not my policies! Summers was not giving a psychology paper, and he's not a social scientist; he's an economist and the president of Harvard. (Frankly, he probably just picked this stuff from a few conversations with Steven Pinker.) He should not have been making psychological hypotheses in a field he knows nothing about. It was not his place to make the comments he did.

That said, this is a trivial matter getting more exposure than it deserves. Let it be.
posted by painquale at 6:38 PM on January 31, 2005


transona5 has it. Very astute.
posted by painquale at 6:40 PM on January 31, 2005


no, it's because back in the hunter-gatherer era men could count up to 21 on their digits; women only to twenty.
posted by mono blanco at 6:40 PM on January 31, 2005


This makes me like Summers all the more.

Please, Lawrence: you are a breath of fresh air at Harvard. Ignore your critics on this one, both because you might be right in your thinking aloud, and because you should be entitled to thing aloud and be wrong without such a stupid storm of criticism.
posted by ParisParamus at 6:42 PM on January 31, 2005


And in regards to transona5's comment, because I lumped all of the sciences together into the category of things women aren't good at the same as Summers did, let me qualify that by saying those subjects that require more discovery, exploration, solving of problems, or experimentation, I would expect women to do worse at. Subjects like Psychology, Biology, or Law, require more memorization than problem solving, and I would expect women to do quite well in those areas. But areas such as Programming, Mathematics, or Astronomy, for example, I would expect men would do better.
posted by banished at 6:45 PM on January 31, 2005


The science shows that it is true.

It is time for politics, once again, to catch up to science.
posted by Mean Mr. Bucket at 6:45 PM on January 31, 2005


Wendell: It's just stupid to make an assumption about "inate ability" and call it a hypothesis without serious study. Especially on the basis of nothing but wishful thinking.

But it's not an assumption, Wendell, it's a scientific fact. It says right here in the article: There is widespread and persistent evidence that, insofar as we can measure mathematical talent quantitatively, men have a slightly higher mean as well as a greater variance.

Of course, you can dispute the facts and disparage them as "just a theory" and then maybe go on and argue that there is no real evidence for evolution either. Or that smoking causes cancer.

Now, one thing that is self-evident is that the mathematical talents of the general population and of journalists in particular are abysmally low, and you can be sure as hell that this fairly complicated idea of statistical distribution underlying Summers' assertion (the tail effect, which was surprisingly well explained in the article) will be completely over the head of most and will be reduced to something like this: Men are better in math than women. Which is not at all what he said.
posted by sour cream at 6:47 PM on January 31, 2005


Oh, I missed this:

Over 30 years, I have sat in on many hiring and promotion decisions. My own experience convinces me that women in my field are simply not the victims of unfair neglect or disparagement.

I'll concede that this could in fact be true now. But this guy is trying to argue that it has been true since at least 1975.

those subjects that require more discovery, exploration, solving of problems, or experimentation, I would expect women to do worse at. Subjects like Psychology, Biology, or Law, require more memorization than problem solving, and I would expect women to do quite well in those areas. But areas such as Programming, Mathematics, or Astronomy, for example, I would expect men would do better.

Are you serious? Biology doesn't involve experimentation but astronomy does? That's what makes astronomy so hard: you can't readily test high-level theories by experimentation like you can in biology.

(thanks, painquale!)
posted by transona5 at 6:54 PM on January 31, 2005


I think it's funny that Summers used his daughters play as an example of gender differences. Here's someone who probably works those 80 hour weeks that he mentioned and doesn't spend much time with his kids, let alone other children. Who would he possibly compare his daughters to?
posted by lasm at 6:59 PM on January 31, 2005


sour cream, from the other article:

Whether the different brain designs translate into differences in specific intellectual skills, like math or language, is unknown. It's possible, according to Haier, that the findings offer one explanation for the stereotypical male predilection for numbers and spatial questions and female preference for language.

... When it comes to sex differences found in the brain, though, the degree to which they are inborn is not necessarily clear. As Haier and his colleagues note in their report, there is evidence that the volume of the brain's gray matter can increase with learning, and therefore may be a matter of environment as well as genes.

But, as he pointed out, that's a complex and controversial issue.


The fact that women score lower on mathematical assessments doesn't mean that women are innately worse at math. While that is, doubtless one possibility among many others, it is by no means the obvious possibility. (Cf. girls in Iceland upthread.) Why would it be, when for hundreds of years, and continuing today, our culture thinks of math as belonging to men and housework to women? Mathematical assessments aren't testing innate ability at all; they're testing the abilities of acculturated people. "A slightly higher mean and a greater variance" is far more likely explained by a cultural, rather than a biological, factor.

Again, obviously men and women are different from one another. What this has to do with lower numbers of tenured female science and math I just don't see. I suppose you think that women like pink and men like blue, that women drink tea and men drink coffee, that women like Simon and Garfunkel and men like Guns 'n' Roses, and that women like being housewives more than men like being house-husbands because of innate biological factors as well, as discussed in the extremely inconclusive article I've cited? The evidence is in: women like girly things way more than they like manly things, and vice versa, because they're men and women!

Obviously this will be re-debated until (if?) it's closed. I hope none of you innate-difference people turn out to be my kid's math or science teacher someday.
posted by josh at 7:06 PM on January 31, 2005


This is totally rediculous. I'm a male grad student doing computer climate modelling, about to get his Ph.D.; this subject is very mathy and physicsy (though not very englishy, as you can tell) and my grad advisor is a woman. She is much better at math than I am. In fact, in our department, the general trend is that the women are much stronger in math skills than the men. However, when it comes to subjects like promotion, being asked to speak at conferences, being taken seriously by older, male professors, they have huge problems. Anybody who thinks genetic ability is what holds women back in the comp-sci/math/physics fields is living in a dream world--or possibly has never actually spoken about these problems with women in the relevant fields. There may be genetic differences between men and women, but they are currently still secondary to the social environment we live in.
posted by freedryk at 7:09 PM on January 31, 2005


What he states is only true in what you value. If you value high mileage as what is important, then the Prius is the car for you. All other metrics are then worthless. (speed, handling, pick your favorite)

Summers is perfect, flawless if you will, at thinking in one way, the traditional method. The world is not this way anymore and he has caused the exodus of the entire African-American Studies department at Harvard. Why? Because he could only accept high mileage as the only metric. Are there other metrics, I don't know but it is for the faculty to decide and discuss - NOT for the president.

He is pure 20th century academics and very linear. He will be know for shaking things up at Harvard - ie. making people get our of their chair and scream their opinion.

If I can just point out - "1969 -- Yale and Princeton accepted their first women undergraduates." My point is that academia is mainly white and male. Larry's comments only bolster the support of this quote.

Please keep in mind I am not saying he is wrong, but the conclusion where they don't fit the model and therefore get less tenure positions is where the failure occurs IMHO. Yes, we have differences, but relish them don't make them a point of success versus failure.

Summers can't leave fast enough.
posted by fluffycreature at 7:25 PM on January 31, 2005



I saw on 20/20 today (it gets broadcast in Oz at 5:30am - I sometimes watch it when I get ready for work) a female CIA agent saying that woman make good operatives because they have better intuitive ability than men.

josh, wendell, freedryk, et al: I hope you find her comment equally outrageous.

[My point is a slight tangent to the argument at hand. It's the hypocrisy that does my head in. She said what she said with a straight face. The interviewer thought it was a perfectly valid statement. Nodded sagely. Interview went on without any call for her to explain herself more fully.

I mean, sheesh. Bit of consistency here, folks.

Imagine if a fella said men make good CIA operatives because they are better at reading maps and doing "analytical stuff". We'd be coming back from an ad break, and we'd be confronted with a solemn looking presenter apologising for the previous guest's comments - and how they didn't reflect the views of the network yada yada.]
posted by uncanny hengeman at 7:27 PM on January 31, 2005


mono blanco: try more than two million! BINARY, MAN!
posted by Calast at 7:29 PM on January 31, 2005


josh, wendell, freedryk, et al: I hope you find her comment equally outrageous.

I'll find it equally outrageous just as soon as women dominate espionage to the degree that men currently dominate academic science, and the agent with these views is the head of the CIA.
posted by transona5 at 7:32 PM on January 31, 2005


banished, your statements are so full of assumptions and half-thought out ideas (back in what day? Do you have positive evidence of a "natural" division of labor based on gender in all human cultures since homo sapiens evolved?) as to be laughable. If you're a guy, you have gravely misrepresented your own gender in the logic department (where you supposedly excel). Try to take a look at human history and culture without assuming you just "know" what men and women are good at. You might learn something.

Oh, and my mom, at age 45, bought her first computer and became a whiz at it, using it to run our family business. My dad used it to play Space Invaders. He preferred reading about history and religion; my mom preferred things like math and law. You know "hard" topics. But I'm sure, innately, he was better at those things than she was, because he was male. Whatever.

uncanny hengeman: on preview, yes it is wrong. Women are not more intuitive; some studies now suggest that "intuition" ie, anticipating the moods or actions of another, is common to anyone, regardless of gender, who finds themselves in a subordinate position. Men are equally intuitive when they have to be hyper-aware of what their boss it up to.

And just as a general bit of info, many feminist scholars have talked about these kinds of "compliments" (women=more intuitive, sensitive, whatever) as something to watch out for, because they serve the function of defining women's roles for them instead of letting women exist on their own terms. Perceptions of masculinity do the same thing; men must always=strong, incommunicative, violent, sexist, etc. Some men are sensitive; some women are jerks. But those who don't fit the mold get silenced by ridicule or just ignored when discussions about gender traits come up.
posted by emjaybee at 7:35 PM on January 31, 2005


I'll concede that this could in fact be true now. But this guy is trying to argue that it has been true since at least 1975.

Really? I thought he merely put forth a few possible explanations.

So much ado about an innocent, tempered remark.
posted by trharlan at 7:39 PM on January 31, 2005


"This guy" = the guy who wrote the linked article. I'm sure Summers wouldn't argue something that ridiculous.
posted by transona5 at 7:41 PM on January 31, 2005


This is not the anti-PC crowd yelling. This is the good science crowd yelling.

Summers said this on the THIRD day of a conference at NBER, one of the quant social science research insitutions in the country. He walks in and just kinda throws this out there. Gee, Larry. None of the large number of experts in this field of considered this idea.

Summers doesn't just "toss the idea out there as a hypothesis". He places it second in a list of priorities to be examined, behind 'these women have babies and leave the field' and ahead of the possibility of discrimination.

The President of Harvard, given a choice, should not just toss ideas out in a field with which he is not well aquainted. He should inspire, he should list goals and work with very good people to achieve them. There is a line between 'challenging' and 'provoking'.

The bottom line is that the guy's a dick. He got along horribly at Treasury. He's managed to alienate the public policy, education and divinity school entirely, and many faculty across the balkanized, entrenched landscape. Even if you credit him for thinking about the bottom line, he still doesn't get a passing grade: he has failed to keep either Meyer or Larson, the two architects behind harvard's investments that grew the endowment so large.
posted by allan at 7:41 PM on January 31, 2005


trharlan:

Really? I thought he merely put forth a few possible explanations.

So much ado about an innocent, tempered remark.


this man was a president of a university. (and not merely a university, but harvard university.) i think that the issue of women and mathematics is clearly controversial; certainly the outpouring of opinion and emotion that has sprung from his comments would not be were it otherwise. to me, for his comments to be "innocent," Summers would have to reasonably not expected such a response. i happen to believe that is not the case, and as such his remarks seem more gullible than anything else.

really, i think, the only tempered remark Summers could have made in response to the questions would have been "i couldn't say."
posted by moz at 7:54 PM on January 31, 2005


I have no problem scrutinizing Summers choice of priorities in terms of explanations for the discrepancy, however, I also have no problem with the science behind his claim. The scientific "discrepancy" between genders is most certainly a factor. Does that mean that all men are better at science than women? No. As was said, there are female scientists and professors in high levels in mathematical and scientific fields, and many of them are a hell of a lot better at math and science than I am, but is there a strikingly lower ratio than in less numerical and spatial fields? Yes.

I thought this argument was intriguing enough to warrant my signing up for MetaFilter. Hello all. Hope I'll be useful, and flame retardant.
posted by potch at 7:57 PM on January 31, 2005


he has failed to keep either Meyer or Larson, the two architects behind harvard's investments that grew the endowment so large.

Whatever. Two fixed-income guys who made a lucky bet. Szeman and Larson are the hitters at Harvard.
posted by Kwantsar at 7:58 PM on January 31, 2005


I'll find it equally outrageous just as soon as women dominate espionage to the degree that men currently dominate academic science, and the agent with these views is the head of the CIA.

Very cute. My example was: imagine if a male of EQUAL STATION in life said similar things. It wouldn't wash. There would be a thread about it here the next day. You would be on it commenting on how silly the guy is.

The hypocrisy is very real. You're gonna have to do a lot better than that response to convince me otherwise.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 8:00 PM on January 31, 2005


Thank you for saying that so well, freedryk. This is true at my university also. And every other institution I've dealt with.

And the reason that there should be such a big ado is because this is an important window of opportunity for people who think it is necessary to dispel this myth to do so. It's not going to dispel itself, you know. Summer is the president of one of the very most highly held universities in the world and it makes sense to me that he should be held up to a certain standard. If it was just someone's grandpa that said it, maybe it would be ok to let him get away with it.
posted by cindileper at 8:00 PM on January 31, 2005


Oops. First post, and already an apostrophe catastrophe.

...scrutinizing Summers's choice...

</anal>
posted by potch at 8:04 PM on January 31, 2005


I suppose, then, that my history advisor, the head of the Art History Department, and the most brilliant Shakespeare scholar I have ever had the priviedge to speak with were all just slumming it in their Liberal Artsy departments. I'm sure that they were just, you know, tired of Physics and wanted to come do something easy.

Give me a break.

This type of commentary not only devalues women in the sciences, but in the reverse, devalues men in the Humanities. Some of my best teachers were men. My advisor does brilliant research in Reformation Era apocalyptic thought. He's an amazing professor.

Women and men are different, certainly, but I have a hard time believing that any physical differece explains why more men are in mathematics than women. When I was in highschool, I out-scored every male in my grade on the mechanical portions of the ASVAB. The Navy thought I was some kind of genius mechanic. Mistake? No. I'm good spatially, a typically male-associated affinity, and the mechanical test was all about spatial ability. I can park my car almost without looking. What am I, then? A mutant? Do I have a renegade "boy" area, or was I just lucky enough to be raised fairly gender blind? Given my experience, given that my dad taught me how to wire, and fix things, and my mom didn't shove barbies down my throat and encouraged my curiosity, I think it's the latter. If we want more women in science, we need to raise our girls as if they are able to do this stuff from the outset, not take it on as some kind of afterthought.
posted by Medieval Maven at 8:07 PM on January 31, 2005


josh, wendell, freedryk, et al: I hope you find her comment equally outrageous.

I certainly do find it outrageous. Inconsistency is not a problem for me. I don't suppose generalizations about innate abilities, period.

My feeling is, basically, that culture is complicated, important, and powerful, and that if it can make people become Nazis, build Notre Dame, and paint Guernica then it can probably keep women from excelling in disciplines it wants to reserve for men. That's very different from what's being said in your espionage example; you're putting words in my mouth, I think.
posted by josh at 8:08 PM on January 31, 2005


*suppose = support
posted by josh at 8:08 PM on January 31, 2005


After reading the preceeding comments, I found that I actually had to read the article only to find that this is the same damn, female-male-Harvard President discussion that Casu Marzu has pointed out, is not only a double post but a waste of time.

I'm not saying this to win the heart of my anthropologist/educator girl friend either, but I know so many girls, females, who can kick so much ass in the science/math fields, that I just have to guess that Lawrence Summers is really just a JACKASS.

Check out last Friday's Science Friday on NPR. Sorry, no time to link.
posted by snsranch at 8:09 PM on January 31, 2005


Summers proposed a hypothesis which should be tested scientifically. Thus Harvard should do whatever it can to promote and encourage and recruit and support female scientists and then should wait--collecting data--for 50 years to see if those efforts have a significant change on the status of the experimental groups (Harvard grad) v. the control group (everyone else). This would be a bold move that would advance science. Larry, what do you think?
posted by donovan at 8:09 PM on January 31, 2005


josh, wendell, freedryk, et al: I hope you find her comment equally outrageous.

I'll find it equally outrageous just as soon as women dominate espionage to the degree that men currently dominate academic science, and the agent with these views is the head of the CIA.


Since when does "whichever team is winning" change the veracity of a statement? Aside from issues of indeterminacy and self-reference, a generalization is either true or it's not, regardless of who makes it. Are you saying that spouting off false (or unverifiable in any case) stereotypes is acceptable as long as it's done in service of the "team" that's behind on the sociological scoreboard? Or are you saying that your outrage is really not tied to the veracity of a comment, but to something else?

I don't see what's wrong with labeling a stupid (or at least mis- or under-informed generalization) as such, and leaving it at that. Regardless of who it's from or who/what it's about. Anything else would be intellectually disingenuous.
posted by DaShiv at 8:10 PM on January 31, 2005


Does that mean that all men are better at science than women?

Did Summers say that?

The President of Harvard, given a choice, should not just toss ideas out in a field with which he is not well aquainted.


Like Sommers is some sort of simpleton who must thoroughly vet his comments with your committee? Is thinking critically such a terrible thing?

You pretend that there is no remotely credible reason to believe that innate differences might exist.

this is an important window of opportunity for people who think it is necessary to dispel this myth to do so.


A "myth?" Really? Like Summers stood forth, pounded on the table, and proclaimed that the Earth was flat?

I have a hard time believing that any physical differece explains why more men are in mathematics than women.

I don't think that's the likeliest hypothesis, either. But should such furor erupt over a prominent individual acknowledging that such a thing is possible?

Good God. What hysteria.
posted by trharlan at 8:11 PM on January 31, 2005


The people that argue "yeah, well this individual disproves your general statement" are missing the point. Are there exceptions? Obviously. The question is not "are these differences absolute?" but rather "is there a general trend?", which is much harder to answer.
posted by mote at 8:12 PM on January 31, 2005


Possible being quite different than probable. I find it highly improbable that a simple physical difference accounts for this. I'm not hysterical, but I do think it's a simplistic, sexist, and frankly slightly stupid explanation.
posted by Medieval Maven at 8:12 PM on January 31, 2005


this is such a boneheaded interpretation of what happened. Summers made a statement rooted in sexism, oblivious to the effects that socialized gender roles have on members of our society. Women who pay attention to how the world works called bullshit. Many people articulated exactly why Summers' ideas are so offensive. No one declared it unwalkable intellectual territory -- but many have declared the ideas as anti-intellectual, short-sighted, flawed analysis of circumstances. Anyone who thinks that Summers has been victimized needs a reality check.
posted by Embryo at 8:18 PM on January 31, 2005


was I just lucky enough to be raised fairly gender blind? [...] If we want more women in science, we need to raise our girls as if they are able to do this stuff from the outset, not take it on as some kind of afterthought.

It has always been easier (in the United States, at least) to blame societal bias/inequity than to scrutinize parental responsibility and influence. Regardless of the issue at stake.

Kudos to both of your parents.

I'm not dismissing societal bias/inequity here, but merely putting it in perspective, IMO.
posted by DaShiv at 8:18 PM on January 31, 2005


Does that mean that all men are better at science than women?

Did Summers say that?


Did I claim he did?

Perhaps I misused my context, but that was in reference to the study itself, as opposed to Summers. Summers should not be punished for what he said. Period. He commented on a theory, that in his opinion, had scientific merit. I would, however, like to see him comment on this issue further, rather than let his silence damn him.
posted by potch at 8:20 PM on January 31, 2005


DaShiv is DaMan!

Makes my followup post look rather lame.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 8:21 PM on January 31, 2005


Since when does "whichever team is winning" change the veracity of a statement?

I don't think the substance of Summers' comments is that outrageous in the first place. They were careless speculations that probably contained some truth. The female CIA agent was doing the same thing, but not from a position like that of Summers. And it does matter what team is winning; speculation like that hasn't hurt male agents in the past. It's not just the veracity of a statement; it's also the consequences for being even a little wrong.
posted by transona5 at 8:22 PM on January 31, 2005


Fair enough--I'm happy to agree that these types of stereotypes should be much more closely scrutinized when uttered by someone in a position of authority, and I also agree that looking at whether or not such stereotypes in certain situations could produce harm is a much more fruitful avenue of inquiry than worrying about who's "dominating" whom.

Hugs all around!
posted by DaShiv at 8:37 PM on January 31, 2005


It's just stupid to make an assumption about "inate ability" and call it a hypothesis without serious study. Especially on the basis of nothing but wishful thinking.

Do you even know what a hypothesis actualy is? It means something you think may be true, but you don't know. How the hell can you perform serious study on something without first hypothesising? Idiot.
posted by delmoi at 8:52 PM on January 31, 2005


My theory is that it all goes back ancient times with men being hunters and women staying home and cooking, raising children, etc. Men explored, women stayed back at home. Men are more apt to explore (science and math) and women do incredibly well in areas like the liberal arts because they have a firmer grip on culture, which in ancient times, they passed on to their young.

My theory is you're an idiot.
posted by delmoi at 8:54 PM on January 31, 2005


Also an idiot: Mean Mr. Bucket. I get all my science news from Reuters too! uneducated journalists are always great at explaning things they don't understand.
posted by delmoi at 8:58 PM on January 31, 2005


Do mean have higher aptitude for math and science then women? Who knows? Who cares?

I'd guess that men actualy have less, because Summers is a man and he's dropping our average.

Honestly Summers has illustraighted such sloppy scientific thinking that he probably ought to step down as Harvard president What an embarasment. One fucking datapoint about your daughter does not make for scientific research. Ugg I mean honestly.

Anyway as a math and science guy (CS, reppazent), I definetly think we need more women around, especialy hot women.
posted by delmoi at 9:12 PM on January 31, 2005


Who knows? Who cares?

"Who cares"?!! That seems like a rather flippant, ill thought out statement
posted by uncanny hengeman at 9:21 PM on January 31, 2005


I also agree that looking at whether or not such stereotypes in certain situations could produce harm is a much more fruitful avenue of inquiry than worrying about who's "dominating" whom.

That's what I was really trying to get across...see, we all agree and stuff.
posted by transona5 at 10:08 PM on January 31, 2005


I am male, and Indian, and I'm in the humanities! Does that make me weird?
posted by papakwanz at 10:10 PM on January 31, 2005


Where the hell are the social psychologists when you need them?

Genetic disparity? Bleh. Try stereotype threat.
posted by sellout at 10:23 PM on January 31, 2005


Thank you, mote.

Every bit of anecdotal evidence being offered does absolutely nothing to invalidate the hypothesis. It's like someone saying that there are more apples than oranges in a box, and someone replying by saying "Not true! I just found an orange!"
posted by vernondalhart at 11:53 PM on January 31, 2005


Are we *still* arguing about this nonsense?
posted by kyrademon at 12:06 AM on February 1, 2005


Are we *still* arguing about this nonsense?

Yes!!! And what vernondalhart said just above you.

If the hypothesis was: women will "never ever" be as good at men in the mathematical sciences stakes, then the "Not true! I just found an orange!" argument would hold water.

But that's not what Lawrence Summers is saying.

So the "Not true! I just found an orange!" means jack in this instance.



FWIW, the "Not true! I just found an orange!" argument is a staple of your Rikki Lake-type-audience way of debating things. I'm surprised it has been so accepted here in this thread in such a highbrow website.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 12:50 AM on February 1, 2005


Even if a distinction like this is part of the story of women's lesser success in some disciplines (very hard to prove, certainly not proven yet), there's at least one really big problem with running around declaring it, especially given its status as unproven (despite bogus "proofs" like the link posted by Mean Mr. Bucket above). It's called "self-fulfilling prophecy." If influential public figures run around saying that girls are innately less likely to be able to do certain things, their teachers, parents, etc will, good intentions and even desire to do otherwise notwithstanding, be less likely to encourage them (often in totally unconscious ways!) to do those things, and to make them feel that they are capable of them or that the things are appropriate for them. Cries that such ideas are just a cover for "political correctness" can easily themselves be a way to protect prejudices from practical threats.

So the point is, even if Larry Summers thinks something like this, should he go around declaring it? I think the answer is obviously no, even if he happens to be right. (NB: I repeat: even if he's right, it's ridiculous to suggest that this has been proven. The anecdote about his daughter also suggests that his own grounds for belief are far from scientific...)
posted by paul! at 2:44 AM on February 1, 2005


Genetic disparity? Bleh. Try stereotype threat.

Good point.

It has always been easier (in the United States, at least) to blame societal bias/inequity than to scrutinize parental responsibility and influence. Regardless of the issue at stake.

So parents apparently aren't influenced by society, only children are? Parents just spontaneously generate their own prejudices?

Parents don't feel the need to excuse their prejudices, they just don't know there's a problem with them in the first place. Larry Summers sure as hell isn't contributing to lessening this problem.
posted by paul! at 3:14 AM on February 1, 2005


Megan O'Rourke does a good job over at Slate of outlining the problems with Summer's statements. The article echoes many of the things that have been said here, but she does a good job of marshalling some facts as well. Her basic points are:
1) Summers doesn't know what he's talking about in a contentious field.
2) Summers does not have a very good track record fostering female scholars at Harvard.
3) The scientific evidence demonstrates that even when it appears that men are better at math, there is a testing bias that interferes with truly measuring that ability.
4) Summers has a position that makes his comments matter more than, say, the comments of a random CIA agent.

The notion that it is PC hysteria to call Summers out on this is the height of disingenuous intellectual equivocation. The fact is, he made a bonehead comment about historical patterns of bias from a position of power. Since a good working definition of discrimination is bias + the power to institute that bias, Summers has rightly been questioned about his possible investment in gender discrimination.
posted by OmieWise at 6:45 AM on February 1, 2005


Double post! Twice the misogyny! Whee!
posted by agregoli at 6:51 AM on February 1, 2005


Even if this is a double post, the lesson here is clear: close down Harvard and instead use their obnoxiously large endowment to pay the tuition of every other student in the United States. You practically could, and since Harvard is just a three-ring circus, you wouldn't be losing anything.
posted by koeselitz at 8:07 AM on February 1, 2005


There is a difference between hypothesis and conjecture. If I have some prejudices, I could hypothesize reasons for things being the way I think they are. If I just say "well it might be because of genetics" then that's just conjecture. In one case there's a respect for discovery and knowing. In the other case, there's wishful hoping for a scientific reason to back your beliefs.

Summers occupies a political office. Was he calling for more research into gender and learning, or was he trying to explain away the disparity in achievements? It's pretty clear to me what the intent was.
posted by adzuki at 10:01 AM on February 1, 2005


The science shows that it is true.

It is time for politics, once again, to catch up to science.


You are aware, Mr "Bucket," that the 'science' once proclaimed it 'true' that the Jewish race was physically and intellectually inferior to the Anglo-Saxon Race. We all saw the effects of the political response to this at Auschwitz last week.

It is perhaps prudent to be a little more nuanced in your assertions, at least if you want to avoid coming off like a complete fucking idiot.
posted by Dr_Johnson at 12:35 PM on February 1, 2005


Subjects like Psychology, Biology, or Law, require more memorization than problem solving,

Huh??? Biology requires more memorization than problem solving?? Perhaps for the introductory freshman course. But if you believe that applies throughout all of biology, I daresay you've never taken a graduate level class in biology.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:49 PM on February 1, 2005


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