The Check is NOT in the Mail

I have not asked my wife yet, but she certainly must be proud today to be a Harvard (B-school) alumna today, given recent comments by Harvard President Larry Sommers:

The president of Harvard University prompted criticism for suggesting that innate differences between the sexes could help explain why fewer women succeed in science and math careers.

My gut feel, though, without having talked to her, is that the annual giving check is probably not in the mail.

By the way, I do think there are innate differences in the sexes - it is almost impossible not to see this having raised kids of both genders.  It is also fun to joke about women and math skills - I joke with my wife all the time.  However, I am not speaking as the representative of the leading university in the country.  Mr. Sommer's remark is pure supposition, without any real research behind it (he admits as much).  That said, given that he is in charge of an educational institution whose job is to push people of both sexes up to and beyond their potential, it was a stupid statement from the wrong person.

Is this hypocritical on my part - criticizing Mr. Sommers for something I have done myself?  No.  Here is an analogy:  Its may be fun for all of us to joke about French military prowess, or lack thereof (Q:  Why are the streets of Paris lined with trees?  A: Because the Germans like to march in the shade) but it would be absolutely wrong for the president or the state department to do so in any public venue, because they are representing our country in an official capacity.  Mr Sommers is representing Harvard University, and to suggest publicly that half his student body is biologically incapable of being successful in a substantial part of his University's course work is stupid and irresponsible.

UPDATE:

Virginia Postrel comes to Sommers defense here and here.  She argues that Sommers did indeed have quite a bit of good analysis behind him, and that those of us who criticize him are being politically correct and hindering academic inquisitiveness.    Hmmm, maybe.  I have a lot of respect for Ms. Postrel, so if she says I am missing something, I am willing to think about it some more.  However, I will say that all I saw in the write-ups was data that women are underrepresented in math and science related careers (duh) and speculation but no evidence that this may go beyond socialization to biology. 

I still have trouble buying the biology thing.  For two reasons:

  • The distribution of careers data is loaded with social factors that are really, really hard to control for.  Based on the same data, you might come to the conclusion that blacks are biologically less suited to be corporate CEO's or that men are less suited to being nurses or flight attendants.
  • We are in the middle of a radical change with women and education.  A wave of women more comfortable with educational and intellectual achievement in general is moving through the system.  It is therefore dangerous to read data ahead of the wave - say with 30 and 40 year olds, since everything will change when the wave rolls through. 

How do I know there is such a wave?  If you graduated high school 20 or more years ago, look at the picture of the honor society in the yearbook.  Likely as not, the picture will be mostly boys.  Now go to just about any high school and look on the wall.  Taking my kids to chess tournaments and the like, I have been in a lot of high schools lately, and it is not at all unusual that the pictures of the honor society are ALL girls - not more girls than before, but all girls.  Then, take a look at college enrollment and the huge influx of women there.  Yes, for various reasons, these women may still not be choosing careers in the sciences, but you can't tell me that they are somehow biologically less prepared to do math.

UPDATE#2:  I really did not intend for this to be such a long post, but there is another good defense of Sommers here at Asymmetrical Information.  Apparently most of the left is explaining the "gap" with bias rather than biology.  Which is funny, because I thought much less about bias but rather personal choice - that for a variety of reasons women were not choosing math/science careers.  Anyway, the post from McCardle had this humorous observation:

Interesting, isn't it, how many of the liberals proclaiming that it's utterly ridiculous to think that a department running 95% leftists might be, consciously or unconsciously, discriminating against those of a more right wing persuasion, find it completely obvious that if a physics department is 80% male, that must be because they're discriminating

lol, anyway, no more.  I have decided to cut Sommers some slack, in part because I obviously don't have all the facts, and in part because I am sympathetic to him since I know for a fact that Harvard University is somewhat less governable than, say, Haiti. 

  • http://www.errortheory.blogspot.com Alec Rawls

    Summers' remarks were made for a reason. Feminists are pushing for affirmative action in the sciences on the presumption that there are no inherent intellectual differences between the sexes, so that any differences in representation in the sciences must be due to bias. To say that the president of a university should not point out the obvious fallacy of the no-differences presumption is to say that he must knuckle under to feminist demagogeury and go on a witch hunt to root out non-existent bias.

  • http://stonecity.blogspot.com Sammler

    I have to support Alec. Summers suggested the possibility that "innate differences" might be a cause. Not "are a cause"; not "might be the cause". If you say Summers was wrong even to suggest the possibility -- which, as he correctly points out, is supported by voluminous research -- then you are saying we must close our eyes to this possibility, with no attempt to seek truth.

  • markm

    Summers definitely did not, "suggest publicly that half his student body is biologically incapable of being successful in a substantial part of his University's course work."