Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Summers time?

Posted by Danny Tarlow
The excerpt from Super Crunchers in this article is an interesting look into the deeper details of the comments Larry Summers made about the differences between men and women in science and mathematics: http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/11/18/larry-summers-for-treasury-secretary/ I think it's relevant to keep in mind that Summers made this claim at a conference on "Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce." You can also see the caveats he lays out by looking at the full text of his speech:
I asked Richard, when he invited me to come here and speak, whether he wanted an institutional talk about Harvard's policies toward diversity or whether he wanted some questions asked and some attempts at provocation, because I was willing to do the second and didn't feel like doing the first. And so we have agreed that I am speaking unofficially and not using this as an occasion to lay out the many things we're doing at Harvard to promote the crucial objective of diversity. There are many aspects of the problems you're discussing and it seems to me they're all very important from a national point of view. I'm going to confine myself to addressing one portion of the problem, or of the challenge we're discussing, which is the issue of women's representation in tenured positions in science and engineering at top universities and research institutions, not because that's necessarily the most important problem or the most interesting problem, but because it's the only one of these problems that I've made an effort to think in a very serious way about. The other prefatory comment that I would make is that I am going to, until most of the way through, attempt to adopt an entirely positive, rather than normative approach, and just try to think about and offer some hypotheses as to why we observe what we observe without seeing this through the kind of judgmental tendency that inevitably is connected with all our common goals of equality. It is after all not the case that the role of women in science is the only example of a group that is significantly underrepresented in an important activity and whose underrepresentation contributes to a shortage of role models for others who are considering being in that group. To take a set of diverse examples, the data will, I am confident, reveal that Catholics are substantially underrepresented in investment banking, which is an enormously high-paying profession in our society; that white men are very substantially underrepresented in the National Basketball Association; and that Jews are very substantially underrepresented in farming and in agriculture. These are all phenomena in which one observes underrepresentation, and I think it's important to try to think systematically and clinically about the reasons for underrepresentation.
There is a pretty overwhelming consensus that the arguments he goes on to make are flawed in "twenty different ways," but I think the rough idea of using an order statistics type approach is interesting -- rather than explaining differences we see in ultra-competitive positions as evidence of different means, we can equally explain them as evidence of different standard deviations. Now, we can debate whether nurture or nature can better explain different standard deviations in characteristics that lead one to high-powered science and engineering jobs, and Summers goes on to present some arguments that it may not be all nature, which is probably the source of most of his troubles with the media. Regardless, Summers's speech is interesting and intellectually provocative. One of the things that I admire about Barack Obama is that he generally speaks in an intelligent, more nuanced manner than most politicians I've seen. I felt that same sort of appreciation reading Summers's speech. Now, I won't go so far as to argue whether this speech should have gotten Summers dismissed as Harvard's president, but I agree that the reason why his dismissal might be justified is because of the drastic oversimplification of his arguments that are presented to the broader public. At least in my reading, I saw a person looking at a complex piece of data and trying to come up with some plausible hypotheses that explain it. Nowhere did I see any evidence of latent sexist beliefs held by Summers. I think Summers is an excellent fit for an Obama presidency that is serious about taking an open-minded, pragmatic approach to tackling the problems our country is facing without worrying about the media response and political implication of every decision.

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