Monday, January 24, 2005

Summers for the Last Time

This Summers thing just won't die. People, some of them otherwise intelligent, just don't seem to understand why Summers has been criticized. The point of these criticisms is not that there aren't sex differences in the brain (quite obviously, there are), or even that there are no sex differences in secondary math skills. The sources of the criticisms are a.) we have a very incomplete knowlegdge of the causes of these differences (we certainly don't know enough to say how much is innate, particularly with the questioning of the spatial reasoning explanation caused by some research ), though we do know that discrimination and stereotyping are at least partially to blame, and b.) the differences are not sufficient to explain much of the variance in academic hiring and promotion. As others, particularly Scott Lemieux and Mark Graber, have noted, those who continue to point to research demonstrating sex differences, research that most of Summers' critics readily admit exists and is important, are missing the mark entirely. Mark writes:
Rather than genetics, doesn’t it seem more likely that the tenured faculty in science departments are overwhelmingly male for the same environmental reasons which explain why most English departments have at least as many tenured men as women? [Researchers have consitently shown that females have higher verbal scores. - Chris] Men in our society improve their standing vis-a-vis women in all disciplines from high school and college to professional life. When men start with a slight advantage, they wind up with almost total control. When men start with a severe disadvantage, they obtain equality, if not some advantage. This is culture, not genetics, unless one assumes the genetic effects of masculinity only kick in around age 25. This notion, obviously absurd, also contradicts medical observations that genetic predispositions generally begin to exert their influence early in life.
I raised the point in my first post on Summers that he was wrong to emphasize what are likely to be small influences that we can do nothing about over potentially large influences that we can do something about. I still think that is the primary reason Summers was wrong. The fact that so many defenders of Summers, from Pinker to the folks at Volokh, keep talking about the existence of sex differences, indicates to me that they fail to understand that.


Anonymous said...

Oh, yeah, that's my gripe too. So many people say "here's a difference between sexes" and stop thinking. 

Posted by PZ Myers

Anonymous said...

But Summers was saying that sex differences was one possible causes amongst others. There is no indication that he was suggesting that it played a greater role than straight forward discrimination.

Why should it be "wrong to emphasize what are likely to be small influences"? Surely any possible influence is worth investigation. And to say that we can do nothing about it is just not true. We often spend time countering what our genes predispose us towards.

And Summers did actually "emphasize" the large influences - discrimination and childcare. Had he not done so then your criticism would be valid. 

Posted by sock thief

Anonymous said...

By George, I think you've got it! Larry is not being skewered for saying the obvious fact that men and women evolved different software to accompany our different hardware.

Rather, the dismal crimson scientist is a hair away from saying adieu to the throne@harvard because of his pseudoscientific rhetoric a la Ricardo's principle of comparative advantage claiming that DISCRIMINATION cannot exist in the labor market.

kevin said...


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