Wednesday, February 02, 2005

The Summers Affair

I have also avoided blogging about the brain-dead comments of Harvard president Larry Summers about “innate differences” being a significant part of the explanation for female underrepresentation in math and science. The comments struck me as a bit rich, considering that Harvard is currently in the midst of a small scandal about its declining ability to retain female faculty. As for the comments themselves, it seems to me that there is zero evidence that something as complicated as “mathematical ability” can be traced back to genetics and there is ample evidence that discrimination and cultural pressures are discouraging some talented women from pursuing careers in math and science.

So the comments were stupid on their merits and foolish given Summers' position as the President of a major university. And they were disingenuous given Harvard's recent problems in this area.

But what has really prompted me to weigh in on the subject is this column from Town Hall contributor Walter Williams. Bill O'Reilly must be drooling with envy over the sheer quantity of stupidity Williams managed to cram into just a few hundred words.

We will consider the entire essay:

Dr. Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard University, has been excoriated for suggesting that innate differences between men and women might be one of the reasons fewer women succeed in the higher reaches of science and math. Adding insult to injury, he also questioned the role of sex discrimination in the small number of female professors in science and engineering at elite universities.

Professor Nancy Hopkins, an MIT biologist, attended the National Bureau of Economic Research conference titled “Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce” where Dr. Summers gave his lecture. She had to leave the lecture, explaining to a Boston Globe (Jan. 17, 2005) reporter, “I would've either blacked out or thrown up.” In today's campus anti-intellectualism, it's acceptable to suggest that genetics explains some outcomes, but it's unacceptable to use it as an explanation for other outcomes. Let's try a few, and guess whether Professor Hopkins would barf.

Yes, I agree that Hopkins' description of her reaction was a bit melodramatic. I don't believe for a second that she was really in any danger of passing out or throwing up.

But the comment about anti-intellectualism is even sillier. What Hopkins, and everyone else, objects to is Summers using his position as the President of Harvard to give credence to a position that is highly dubious scientifically and clearly dangerous socially. It's not as if Summers actually provided any evidence for his opinion, and it is not as if he was merely tossing out an interesting direction for future research. He was acting like it was a done deal that such genetic differences have been identified.

Williams goes downhill quickly from here:

Suppose a speaker said that sickle cell anemia is genetically determined and occurs almost exclusively among blacks. Would Professor Hopkins stomp out of the room, charging racism? What if it were said that a person's chances of being a carrier of the gene for Tay-Sachs disease, a disease without a cure, is significantly higher if he is an Eastern European (Ashkenazi) Jew? Would Professor Hopkins barf and charge the speaker with anti-Semitism?

Of course, with sickle-cell anemia we know the precise gene that is responsible for the disease, the particular mutation in that gene that causes the disease, and the phenotypic effect this mutation has. Ditto for Tay-Sachs Disease. There's no evidence close to that in the case of “innate differences” between men and women in math and science.

Jon Entine, in his book “Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports And Why We're Afraid to Talk About It” (1999), says, “All of the 32 finalists in the last four Olympic men's 100-meter races are of West African descent.” The probability of such an outcome by chance is all but zero. The genetic physiological and biomechanical characteristics that cause blacks to excel in some sports -- basketball, football and track -- spell disaster for those who have aspirations to be Olympic-class swimmers. Entine says, “No African American has ever qualified for the U.S. Olympic swim or dive team. Indeed, despite a number of special programs and considerable funding that have attracted thousands of aspiring black Olympians, there were only seven blacks who could even qualify to compete against the 455 swimmers at the 1996 Olympic trials.”

Do you suppose Professor Hopkins would charge Entine with racism? The only behavioral genetic explanation that campus anti-intellectuals unquestioningly accept is that homosexuality has genetic origins.

Williams seems to think it's a done deal that African American dominance in a handful of sports can only be explained as the result of genetic differences. This is facile, to say the least. Does anyone believe that Asian dominance in table tennis is the result of superior genetics? Or Russian dominance in chess? Or do you think those are mainly cultural differences?

Of course, Williams' Town Hall colleagues went ballistic when Dean Hamer suggested that there is a genetic component to one's receptivity to religious beliefs. Hamer even produced some bona fide evidence for the claim, pointing to a specific gene and some reaosns to believe that it effects religious belief. But that didn't matter. The right only likes to talk about genetic differences when they can be used to prop up their own idiosyncratic cultural views.

As for homosexuality, considering that homosexual conduct is routinely observed among animals, it is hard to argue that there is no genetic component to it. There is also some direct evidence for a genetic component to such behavior in humans. Despite this, you would be hard-pressed to find a scientist who accepts this premise “unquestioningly.”

What about women in the professions? In my colleague Thomas Sowell's 1984 book “Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality,” there's a chapter titled “The Special Case of Women.” He says, “The economic ramifications of marriage and parenthood are profound, and often directly opposite in their effects on men and women.” Marriage increases male labor-force participation and reduces that of women. Marriage increases career interruption for women but not men. That's important for career advance and selection. If you're a good computer technician, engineer or specialist in the higher reaches of science and technology, and you leave your job for a few years, much of your skills and knowledge will be obsolete when you return. The same obsolescence is virtually absent in occupations such as editor, librarian and schoolteacher. This factor, instead of sex discrimination, might explain some of the career choices made by women.

What a bizarre paragraph! Everything Williams is describing here has to do with differences our culture imposes upon men and women, not innate differences. No one is claiming that overt discrimination is the only explanation for unequal gender representation in certain professions.

Many of the cultural norms that are relevant here are themselves pernicious and groundless. For example, there is far more pressure on young girls to conform than there is on young boys. And many people simply take it for granted that it is the woman, and not the man, who should stay home with the baby. I have no doubt that these facts affect the career choices of many women. But is that much of an imporvement over outright discrimination?

Williams seems to have lost track of the argument he is making. He started out by defending the idea that genetic differences are partly responsible for differing achievment of men and women in the sciences. Now it seems he just wants to persuade us that something other than overt discrimination is responsible for these differences.

But what about the flap over Dr. Summers' suggestion that genetics or innate differences might play a role in the paucity of women in science and engineering? It's not that important whether Dr. Summers is right or wrong. What's important is the attempt by some of the academic elite to stifle inquiry. Universities are supposed to be places where ideas are pursued and tested, and stand or fall on their merit. Suppression of ideas that are seen as being out of the mainstream has become all too common at universities. The creed of the leftist religion is that any difference between people is a result of evil social forces. That's a vision that can lead to the return to the Dark Ages.

Yawn. No one is trying to stifle inquiry. The problem is that Summers was not inquiring into anything. He was acting like there is nothing to inquire about because the question has been answered. And he chose an entirely inappropriate venue in which to make his claim. That is the problem with what he said. Since that doesn't fit well into the right-wing script, so they go straight to the inflammatory talking points instead.

Finally, let me close with this. I have no doubt that our genes influence our behavior in all sorts of subtle ways that we are only beginning to understand. But there is a fundamental and obvious problem in trying to study this subject. We know that our culture and upbringing have a profound influence on our lives. As a practical matter it is very difficult to isolate which gender and racial differences have a genetic component and which are the products of culture. We also know that genes and culture interact in complex ways that are barely understood. Furthermore, there are siginficant and dangerous social consequences to getting it wrong in this area.

That's not a reason to shy away from this research, quite the contrary. But it is a reason for non-expert college Presidents, especially at our most prestigious schools, to tred lightly when addressing this issue.


At 7:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Overall, I agree with your post, except for one point:

You say: "It's not as if Summers actually provided any evidence for his opinion, and it is not as if he was merely tossing out an interesting direction for future research. He was acting like it was a done deal that such genetic differences have been identified."

And later:

"The problem is that Summers was not inquiring into anything. He was acting like there is nothing to inquire about because the question has been answered."

I'm confused -- how do you know what exactly Summers said? I don't believe that his NBER speech is posted anywhere on the web. (If it is, I couldn't find it).

In fact, attendees at his speech reported:

"...after Summers’ mentioned the “innate differences” hypothesis, he explicitly told the audience: “I’d like to be proven wrong on this one.”" (

That sounds as if Summers was presenting the theory as just that -- a theory -- and definitely not a "done deal".

At 11:36 AM, Blogger Jason said...

I based my description of Summers remarks on this article from Slate:

The article provides the following description of Summers' remarks:
Summers allegedly offered these three reasons as explanation: 1) Women want to have children, and as a result they don't put in the 80-hour work week that would make them competitive with their male peers; 2) the innate differences between men and women lead men to outperform women at the top end; 3) discrimination discourages women from pursuing science and engineering past their undergraduate education. (According to Nancy Hopkins of MIT, who walked out of his presentation, he ranked these reasons in order of descending importance. Summers was traveling and couldn't be reached for comment.)

If this is an accurate description then the fact that Summers ranked the reasons suggests that he was speaking as if he knew the answer to why women are underrepresented in math and science. I have not seen any account of Summers' speech that claimed that he presented evidence to back up his statement.

If the Slate article is inaccurate then I apologize to Summers for misrepresenting him.

The fact that he might have said “I hope to be proven wrong” is not so impressive. That's something you say when you believe the evidence is clearly pointing in one direction, but is not yet strong enough to draw a firm conclusion. I don't think that is an accurate description of our knowledge about the role of genetic differences in math and science differences.

At 3:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with both the above poster and your reply.

If he said what Slate alleges he said (without attribution), string him up.

According to the Boston Globe and others, however, it was a bit different.

"...he said that innate differences between men and women might be one reason fewer women succeed in science and math careers. Summers also questioned how much of a role discrimination plays in the dearth of female professors in science and engineering at elite universities.

"Summers said he was only putting forward hypotheses based on the scholarly work assembled for the conference, not expressing his own judgments -- in fact, he said, more research needs to be done on these issues. The organizer of the conference at the National Bureau of Economic Research said Summers was asked to be provocative, and that he was invited as a top economist, not as a Harvard official."

The part about not being a Harvard official is a little silly, he can't not be.

But I think it's worth questioning whether Slate had it right. Apparently his second point, that Slate interpreted as "innate differences", was that fewer girls than boys have top scores in science and math tests in late high school years.

Unfortunately that's a fact. But it's not the same thing as "innate" or "natural" differences, it may certainly be explained, mostly or entirely, by socialization (teachers calling on male students more, etc).

Summers did note in a later interview that no one really understands why this is and that socialization should not be assumed to be the only possible reason.

At 2:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yet I don't believe that there's enough evidence to state that there are subtle differences between the abilities of each sex, I wonder if someday strong evidence was found, if that would be accepted, or would be just pushed away, labeled as sexist. I'm not saying that's happening already, because I don't think that the actual data really supports these sort of differences.

I also think that the comparation of the hipthetical sexual differences with these apparent differences between racial groups is a bit weak... seems to me that the genetic difference expressed is much larger between a man and a woman of the same "race" than the difference between two persons of the same sex but different races...


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