Sunday, February 20, 2005

My Absolutely Last Post on Lawrence Summers' Opinions

At least I pray to the Great Spirit that this is the last post, because I'm fed up with President Summers and his utterances. But even Maureen Dowd is mentioning him in her atypical rant against sexism (atypical because Maureen usually finds feminism the cause of everything that has gone wrong with women in this country.) Surely I can't keep my mouth shut if everybody else is having a go at our Lawrence.

So here it goes. Summers' statement on women in hard sciences and the reasons why there are not more of them have finally been made available as an actual transcript. I read it a few days ago and it says pretty much what the rumors indicated. Summers mentions three different theories for the scarcity of women in physics, mathematics and the like, and they are a) the long working hours expected in these professions and the expectation that women take care of the family, b) the possibility that more men are innately able to do sciences well and c) discrimination. Nothing wrong in mentioning these theories, I think. Where Summers goes wrong is in the way he ranks them without any good evidence:

There are three broad hypotheses about the sources of the very substantial disparities that this conference's papers document and have been documented before with respect to the presence of women in high-end scientific professions. One is what I would call the-I'll explain each of these in a few moments and comment on how important I think they are-the first is what I call the high-powered job hypothesis. The second is what I would call different availability of aptitude at the high end, and the third is what I would call different socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search. And in my own view, their importance probably ranks in exactly the order that I just described.

It is that last sentence and the words "in my own view" that I have difficulty with. True, we all are entitled to have our own views, but if we give a speech as the President of Harvard University then our views will take a significance much greater than those of a private person musing over these questions while having a beer or two. And it seems to me that Lawrence was doing the latter, throwing out various half-baked examples and anecdotes, carefully picking and choosing among existing research and so on, even mentioning that his twin daughters called their trucks mommy and daddy (which, according to many commenters, is really common among both boys and girls). All this in front of an audience that consisted of experts in the field.

This is insulting, isn't it? And just to make it quite clear that Dr. Summers doesn't think much of the discrimination explanation he reiterates:

So my sense is that the unfortunate truth-I would far prefer to believe something else, because it would be easier to address what is surely a serious social problem if something else were true-is that the combination of the high-powered job hypothesis and the differing variances probably explains a fair amount of this problem.

The differing variances refers to the idea that more men are capable of doing sciences on a high level. Why would Summers view this "truth" as unfortunate? After all, it would let him off the hook. If Harvard doesn't discriminate against women in science and if nobody else does, either, then there is no need for special efforts to avoid discrimination. Which makes Lawrence's job as a gatekeeper much easier.

The discrimination part of the speech is especially interesting, largely because of what is missing from it: any mention of the many studies which show that discrimination exists. Instead, Summers muses on two theoretical questions:

On the other hand, I think before regarding it as pervasive, and as the dominant explanation of the patterns we observe, there are two points that should make one hesitate. The first is the fallacy of composition. No doubt it is true that if any one institution makes a major effort to focus on reducing stereotyping, on achieving diversity, on hiring more people, no doubt it can succeed in hiring more. But each person it hires will come from a different institution, and so everyone observes that when an institution works very hard at this, to some extent they are able to produce better results. If I stand up at a football game and everybody else is sitting down, I can see much better, but if everybody stands up, the views may get a little better, but they don't get a lot better. And there's a real question as to how plausible it is to believe that there is anything like half as many people who are qualified to be scientists at top ten schools and who are now not at top ten schools, and that's the argument that one has to make in thinking about this as a national problem rather than an individual institutional problem. The second problem is the one that Gary Becker very powerfully pointed out in addressing racial discrimination many years ago. If it was really the case that everybody was discriminating, there would be very substantial opportunities for a limited number of people who were not prepared to discriminate to assemble remarkable departments of high quality people at relatively limited cost simply by the act of their not discriminating, because of what it would mean for the pool that was available. And there are certainly examples of institutions that have focused on increasing their diversity to their substantial benefit, but if there was really a pervasive pattern of discrimination that was leaving an extraordinary number of high-quality potential candidates behind, one suspects that in the highly competitive academic marketplace, there would be more examples of institutions that succeeded substantially by working to fill the gap. And I think one sees relatively little evidence of that.

I wrote in an earlier post the reasons why the latter of these arguments is a lame one. Becker's prediction applies only in a world where nobody but the employers discriminate and where everybody knows everything relevant, including the real productivities of all workers. When these assumptions are relaxed the conclusion stops applying. In fact, alternative models produce predictions which show that even nondiscriminating firms might be driven to discriminatory forms of behavior if the markets demand this. You pick a model you like, you get the results you like. As Lawrence well knows, and this is why he can't be absolved from using this particular example.

The first point is even worse: He argues that trying to attract women or minorities won't work because there aren't that many qualified members of these groups to begin with. Note that he provides no evidence for this view; only Summers-musings.

Then he returns to his views on this issue, just in case you have already forgotten them:

So my best guess, to provoke you, of what's behind all of this is that the largest phenomenon, by far, is the general clash between people's legitimate family desires and employers' current desire for high power and high intensity, that in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination. I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong, because I would like nothing better than for these problems to be addressable simply by everybody understanding what they are, and working very hard to address them.

He would love to be proved wrong which shows what a nice guy he is. But he doubts that he will be proved wrong as his views are pretty much set already: women don't enter the hard sciences in large numbers because there are few women who are capable of doing so and because few women want to work as hard as the job requires. This latter cause may be made worse by the societal expectations that women take care of the children and also by some discrimination, but on the whole the problem is insoluble. Or that's how I read Summers' opinions.

Now, remember that this speech was given by the president of Harvard University at a conference about how to get more women into sciences. The message seems pretty obvious: there is not much Harvard can do to encourage more women in these fields. Sure, they can provide childcare, perhaps, but that's about it. This from a man whose reign has seen a considerable drop in the number of women who get tenured at Harvard. So even if we ignore the details of Summers' speech we are left with an emotional message which can be quite chilling.

What about the question whether men are inherently more likely to have the ability to do science in the upper tail of the distribution? Note that these distribution tails that are being talked about here apply to various standardized tests. They are not the actual distributions of scientific ability as we can't really quantify such a beast. All we can do is create various tests that measure some small aspect of abilities and learning and test people on these, and these tests are created by human beings. I would be very careful about equating the findings of such tests with innate ability differences, given that they are administered by humans on other humans who already have had years of environmental effects working on them.

Note also that girls and women score as much higher in tests of essay writing, yet we rarely hear the argument that men are innately unable to become great writers in the same numbers as women. Note that many men who are scientists now did not score in the upper tails of these test distributions and finally note that boys might have larger variances in such tests if they do more guessing than girls. Of course men could simply have larger variances in the underlying abilities, whatever these might be for each specific test, but these other pieces of evidence also exist. Though they appear not to have much impact on Summers' opinions.

I suspect that Summers said what he said because of the recent fashion of viewing most everything as genetic. This has something to do with the Human Genome study and the publicity it has attracted, never mind that the study has so far been pretty silent about human psychology. Who knows what is genetic? Some gender differences surely are, but to argue for the rank ordering of causes the way Summers has done is arrogant; we don't have the science to justify such a rank-ordering. The science of genetics is taking baby steps, right now, yet many of us appear to be eager to saddle it with findings it has not yet produced and might never produce. At the same time, real women who score in the upper tails of various standardized test distributions may now not choose science because of comments like this one.