Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Harvard chief says men better at math than women

Lawrence H. Summers, the president of Harvard University, suggested last week that "innate differences in sex may explain why fewer women succeed in science and math careers." NY Times.

Dr. Summers cited research showing that more high school boys than girls tend to score at very high and very low levels on standardized math tests, and that it was important to consider the possibility that such differences may stem from biological differences between the sexes.

How do I feel about being a member of the sex that's not as good at math? Not happy about it. But this wouldn't be my reaction:

Nancy Hopkins, a professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who once led an investigation of sex discrimination there that led to changes in hiring and promotion, walked out midway through Dr. Summers's remarks.

"When he started talking about innate differences in aptitude between men and women, I just couldn't breathe because this kind of bias makes me physically ill," Dr. Hopkins said.

I don't see how getting "physically ill" makes us women look any better. Nancy is just reinforcing negative gender stereotypes that women are too emotional.

If there are innate biological differences in math aptitude, then it's wrong to suppress the truth, otherwise we'd just be whining until the end of days about sexual discrimination causing these difference where such discrimation actually doesn't exist.

Luckily for American women, math intensive work like engineering is of declining importance to our economy because such work can be exported to low wage countries like China and India.

UPDATE

Some enlightened commentary in the blogosphere: The Last Renaissance Man, Lubos Motl's Reference, Joe's Dartblog, and Balloon Juice.

26 comments:

R said...

"Luckily for American women, math intensive work like engineering is of declining importance to our economy because such work can be exported to low wage countries like China and India."

Wow. Just...wow. This statement alone gives a huge amount of insight into your intellectual capacity. Are you suggesting that you believe that women suck at math and are reveling in the fact, then, that women won't have to worry about being reminded of their math deficiencies since engineering is being outsourced?

Never have I ever, ever, in my entire life, read a statement super-saturated with ignorance! Some of the most talented engineers I know are women.

Moreoever, you obviously, PAINFULLY obviously, have absolutely no clue what it is engineers do, do you? Of course you don't. Why am I asking you?

See, what you meant to say in regards to outsourcing was software engineering jobs. Programming. You know, those boring jobs you don't want to hear about because you can't grasp the subject matter.

American engineering is pretty damn safe from outsourcing. And you can bet your non-libertarian, woefully ditzy ass that the engineering involved with missile defense, military weapons systems (aircraft, ground vehicles, ships, and their associated offensive technologies (tracking, communication, weapons)), communication systems, and effectively all of military technology (spanning the plethora of engineering disciplines including aerospace, electrical, mechanical, environmental, chemical, computer, materials, and systems) sure as hell ain't going to be outsourced to southern Asia.

Stick to writing about your love affairs. At least you don't humiliate yourself as much.

Charles said...

Wow, I really need to change my perspective. I thought LG's last statement was a superb bit of sarcasm. Thanks for clearing that up.

Eric said...

Sorry, but I have to go with [R]. I'm not sure she WAS being sarcastic.

Aaronlane said...

I'll leave out the vitriol and censure of [R] and stick to what I'm good at, economic facts.

The US is increasingly becoming a service-oriented economy as manufacturing and agriculture jobs move to economies that have a comparative advantage in those fields. Jobs being lost in the US are largely lower skilled manufacturing and low end service jobs.

Jobs increasingly being created in the US are service and knowledge worker positions.

Do not fall into the trap of thinking of a "service" job in terms of McDonald's and Wal-Mart. This is a common misconception. Lawyers, engineers, filmmakers, chiropracters, teachers, and even lowly economists hold service jobs.

Increasingly the jobs being created in the US, the jobs for which we have a comparative advantage, will require a higher education which includes relatively advanced math skills.

What we expect to see is a broadening disparity in the types of jobs created based on the consumer market and our own advantages in the global marketplace. There will still be plenty of McJobs in the US market, and they will of course increase. I personally expect to see them increase at a slower rate than higher-station service positions like accountants, consultants and engineers.

So while it's true that some knowledge worker jobs are being created overseas and are serving the US market, most economists expect the need for higher educated workers (including those with better math skills) to increase substantially in the coming years.

Paul Snively said...

Yeah, I took it as humor too, much like the "boring programming job" comment, although the serious aspect of that, no doubt, is that it definitely is boring to talk about, especially during a date.

In case it isn't a facetious remark, let me just point out that I work for an American software company, the overwhelming majority of whose customers are Asian companies: a bit of admittedly anecdotal evidence that, at least so far, we retain abilities that other people in the world are willing to pay for.

Jacqueline Mackie Paisley Passey said...

I was diagnosed last year with iron-deficiency anemia, and in researching my condition I came across some studies that suggest that its the cause of women's math deficiency. Boys and girls do equally well in math up until puberty, when girls start menstrating and the resulting blood loss can lead to very low levels of anemia. Anemia impares mental functioning, and apparently math ability is especially sensitive.

So it could be all that is needed to improve female math ability is cheap iron supplements beginning in puberty.

mikeca said...

The average SAT scores of men and women are available at http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0883611.html from 1966 to 2003.

I note in this that before 1971, women scored better than men on the verbal and worse than men on math. Since 1971, women have scored slightly worse than men on both math and verbal. So does this mean that women’s verbal abilities have declined since 1971? I think not.

The SAT test results are a self-selected sample. If only the brightest students in each high school took the SAT, the average scores would be higher. The more students take the test, the lower the average score gets.

I believe that more women take the SAT than men. For example in 2002, 616,201 men and 711,630 women took the SAT (see http://www.cde.state.co.us/cdeassess/results/2002/sat02_pr.pdf). The lower average SAT scores for women are probably mostly because more women take the test than men.

However, the difference is larger for math than verbal. Is this intrinsic or does it have something to do with the way women are socialized. Are women in high school discouraged by their friends or family from doing too well in math? I am a man. I have no idea.

As a side note, my 13 year old daughter, now in 8th grade, took the SAT in December to allow her to apply to a summer program for advanced study. She scored 600 math and 590 verbal putting her around 75% of all students that took the SAT. Her comment was it is really sad that 75% of high school seniors scored lower than an 8th grader. Of course she has attended private schools.

dadahead said...

Libertarian Girl:

How does it feel to have your ass handed to you by your readers after every post?

I've never seen a blogger whose readers are able to intellectually trounce him or her every single time.

Watching them tear apart your "reasoning" is truly a joy.

Congrats!

TWM said...

Actually, I thought it was a pretty good post until the last paragraph. I cannot imagine where you got the idea that engineering is of declining importance to our economy. And, even if it were, it is certainly not of declining importance to our national security. The United States is a superpower because of our productivity and our technology (among other things) and I cannot see us allowing that advantage to expire. Other nations have tried before (Japan in the 80s), but we managed to pull ahead of them and now we stand alone in our economic, political and technological power. And, yes, I know that can change so please don't lecture me.

As an aside, it is amazing how quickly the tone of commenting changed here - first LG could do no wrong and now she can do no right.

I think you guys need to chill a bit . . .

dadahead said...

NO no no no no no no no.

The LAST thing we need to do is to "chill out".

Lib. Girl needs a good intellectual smack-down.

I have posted something on my blog about the importance of not letting up on the likes of L.B. You are welcome to read it.

-D.H.

FireWolf said...

To quote:

"I was diagnosed last year with iron-deficiency anemia, and in researching my condition I came across some studies that suggest that its the cause of women's math deficiency. Boys and girls do equally well in math up until puberty, when girls start menstrating and the resulting blood loss can lead to very low levels of anemia. Anemia impares mental functioning, and apparently math ability is especially sensitive.

So it could be all that is needed to improve female math ability is cheap iron supplements beginning in puberty."

You expect me to believe that because a woman has a menstration she can't do math?

Holy crap! I have never heard such garbage in my entire life! And if that's to be taken at it's word, I guess that means from now on, women need to hand their checkbooks over to their spouses. (Yes my last comment was sarcasm)

"Jacky" You need to get your head examined while you are having your anemia issues fixed. Either that or start eating more liver.

TWM said...

Hmmmm, this anemia theory could explain Dr. Hopkins feeling ill, however. He he . . .

TWM said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
dadahead said...

I suppose we should have expected such IDIOCY from someone calling themselves "Libertarian Girl".

It's throwdown time, L.G.!! You're gonna wish you were never born!! Ha ha.

Dadahead has spoken.

Adam said...

Dada: This is not pro-wrestling. Cease and desist sounding like a third-rate jobber(loser) at a small-time wrestling company. Thanks.

dadahead said...

Looks like someone --I'm looking at you, Adam-- is aching for a SMACKDOWN.

I may be just a head, but I'll still put the hurt on you, bee-yatch.

Jacqueline Mackie Paisley Passey said...

FireWolf: See: Girls' lack of iron linked to lower math test scores

Jacqueline Mackie Paisley Passey said...

From the article: "The study found that compared with children with normal iron levels, iron-deficient youngsters were more than twice as likely to score below average on a standardized math test. ... The difference in performance was most striking in adolescent girls, who also had the highest prevalence of iron deficiency. ... Adolescent girls are especially prone to iron deficiency because of their monthly blood loss from menstruation."

FireWolf said...

Jacqueline: When you quote me a story written by an AP staffer that's not scientific evidence. I did find the report tho, and that particular quote comes from the first page. What is also said:

"3 One of the most concerning consequences of iron
deficiency in children is the alteration of behavior
and cognitive performance. The association of iron
deficiency anemia with lower mental and motor developmental
test scores in early childhood is welldescribed
and has recently been reviewed.4–6 There
are fewer published data, however, on cognitive
achievement in iron-deficient school-aged children
and adolescents; thus, the relationship between iron
status and cognitive functioning for older children is
less clear.
"

You can read the article for yourself hereAnd just because 1 person has done some test case studies, even if there is evidence that does not mean beyond a shadow of a doubt, the claims are true. Intensive back up data and test MUST be performed in order to rule everything out. Period. Otherwise it's pop science and can't stand up on it's own 2 feet.

Charles said...

Ouch, Firewolf. You mean simply quoting some published article by random newspeople no longer counts as scientific, verified, scholarly references to prove a point? Man, this is going to crush some of the people around here.

I bet anyone could find a published article somewhere to support any position they wanted... Internet's a big place.

Good show, Firewolf!

David said...

I don't think she was stating this as a definite scientific conclusion with a 99.9% probability...merely as something that was worth further thought and investigation.

photoncourier.blogspot.com

FireWolf said...

Look David,

Since she was stating that because of her "condition" and the fact that she read an article, that she made it a scientific conclusion and told us without a doubt it was true.

Most people who look at all the "facts" before stating or making any assumptions, can generally discern from her comments that she was trying to state a "truth" based on nothing scientific to back it up.

And that's all I was trying to point out.

Jacqueline Mackie Paisley Passey said...

FireWolf, go back and read what I wrote. "I came across some studies that suggest..." and "So it could be..."

In what dictionary does "suggest" and "could" mean "without a doubt it is true"?

Are you capable of debating a topic without grossly twisting and mischaracterizing someone's statements?


I do think the anemia --> lower math scores line of inquiry is worth pursuing. What do we know about anemia, and what do we know about male and female math performance?
1. Anemia can impair mental functioning
2. Women are more susceptible to anemia than men
3. Menstruation can make anemia worse
4. Girls do better on math than boys until puberty
5. Girls start menstruating in puberty

Seems like this is something that needs to be followed up on, especially if something as cheap as a daily iron supplement could greatly increase the pool of people capable in math. A few bucks per year for a potentially huge human capital payoff?

Jacqueline Mackie Paisley Passey said...

Hmm, it seems Blogger ate my comment. Trying again.

FireWolf, go back and read what I wrote. I said “studies that suggest” and “it could be”. In what dictionary do “suggest” and “could” mean “without a doubt it is true”?

Are you capable of having a debate without twisting and grossly mischaracterizing what someone says?


I do think the anemia ? lower math scores idea is a line of inquiry worth pursuing. What do we know about anemia, and what do we know about girls’ math ability?
1. Anemia can lead to impaired mental functioning
2. Women are more susceptible to anemia
3. Menustration can make anemia worse
4. Girls outperform boys in math until puberty
5. Menustration begins in puberty

Don’t you think that’s worth following up on? Especially if something as cheap as an iron supplement – a few dollars per year! – could potentially lead to such a huge increase in human capital by increasing the pool of people capable at math?


Saying that women suffer from a nutritional deficiency that impairs their math ability is not the same as saying women can’t do math or should hand over their checkbooks to their spouses. It used to be that people living inland were much more likely to be mentally retarded until we started iodizing salt. Does that mean anyone who lives away from the coast is inherently dumb?

TWM said...

By the way, there are TWO Davids posting on LGs comment section. I am sure he doesn't want to be confused with me either so I am going to end my posts with part of my blog name from now on.

The Wandering Mind (of www.talesofawanderingmind.blogspot.com)

Dan said...

Nobody's talking about supressing the truth (well, ok, some folks are claiming that, but do you really want to be on the same side as the guy who wrote The Bell Curve?) The big issue is that Summers threw out vague and thoughtless assertions during a conference on the underrepresentation of women in the math/physics/engineering/etc. fields - assertions that somehow tend to absolve him of any responsibility for Harvard's dramatic drop in the % of tenured job offers for women since he took office . He (as far as anyone can tell; there's no transcript, but recollections seem to generally agree) suggested three reasons in order of probability. The first was that there was a conflict between the tenure track and the mommy track (true, but the way he seems to have framed it makes it sound like it's just the woman's problem, not the result of a job model based on different social arrangements, including wives as full-time support staff. The second was the infamous inherently less ability comment - there just isn't enough info yet, and the historical fact of discrimination against women unfortunately compels us to use a higher standard of proof. The third was some economic theory that seems, to my untutored mind, to rule out the possibility of discrimination anywhere, anytime. - Given discrimination, a non-discriminating institution could gain a competitive advantage by snatching up all the high-quality x's other's were neglecting; since this doesn't seem to be happening, he said, discrimination wouldn't seem to be the major problem. Among other difficulties, I can't see how this would apply to situations of widespread systemic discrimination, which, evidence suggests

A recent experiment showed that when Princeton students were asked to evaluate two highly qualified candidates for an engineering job - one with more education, the other with more work experience - they picked the more educated candidate 75 percent of the time. But when the candidates were designated as male or female, and the educated candidate bore a female name, suddenly she was preferred only 48 percent of the time. [From a NY Times article today on sex differences and intelligence]

is unfortunately still the case (though we have made great progress). Summers' comments aren't helping, and implies he has little understanding of the problem. His anecdote, about how one of his daughters was given toy trucks in a stab at 'gender-neutral parenting,' but insisted on calling them "daddy truck" and "baby truck," suggests he also doesn't realize that this is a comon organizational framework for young children; funny as it was meant to be, it also suggests a certain framework of thought.

-Dan S.
The Bog