The Polite Liberal

A rant-free discussion of liberal philosophy and policies.


The Polite Liberal is the pseudonym of a "nontraditional" graduate student in mathematics (for nonacademics, "nontraditional," is a polite way of saying, "older than 25.") The Polite Liberal is an attempt to spur real policy debate, instead of partisan insults and conspiracy theories. Conservatives (and liberals, of course!) are welcome.

Monday, March 07, 2005

The trouble with Larry

In my own perch in the lower bowels of the ivory tower, there's been a lot of blasting back and forth over the President of Harvard's recent speech in which he suggested that the reason that relatively few women get tenure in top-flight institutions in math and science could have something to do with innate differences in mathematical ability.

Liberals blasted that it was absurd and insulting to even consider innate differences. Conservatives piously wondered what had happened to free speech in academia.

To my mind, there were two key problems with his speech, and neither was the consideration of innate differences.

The first is simply that he ordered his list of potential reasons in precisely the order that left him least culpable for the problem. Quite apart from the merits of the arguments, one ought to be immediately suspicious of an argument that runs (stripped to its fundamentals) "There are many possible reasons for this problem. The most likely by far is that it's not our fault and we can't do anything about it. It's also possible (but much less probable) that it's entirely our fault, for at least seven reasons."

The bigger problem, though, is that his argument assumes as a matter of course that what gets you onto a science faculty is raw, native ability, and that top-notch professors were simply born with vastly more ability than everyone else. Some math and science types like this idea, because it makes them sound a bit like Michael Jordan (despite having no other obvious similarities). Since Mr. Summers in an economist (a field that tends to throw around a lot of math), I suspect he doesn't mind thinking of himself as six standard deviations out from the mean in ability.

The problem is that you already see vastly fewer women in math and science as graduate students or even undergraduates. Take it from me--you don't have to be a math god to be a graduate student in math. You just have to be reasonably good and put a lot of work in.

That's where the "native ability" idea gets pernicious. Math is honestly hard. So's physics. You have to do a lot of work to get good at it. If you think it's all native ability, then there's a temptation not to do the work---after all, if you find it tough, you must not have been born with the "math gene," so why bother?

Did Mr. Summers have any right to make a speech like that? Of course he did! We all have an inalienable right to make fools of ourselves--or to point it out when others have done so.


Blogger Arthur Weatherby-Browne said...

While raw, native ability may not be the only factor that gets a student onto a maths course, wouldn't you at least agree it helps a great deal?

Assume two large populations M and F.

Of course it's possible to get on an undergraduate maths course while only being mildly above average at maths (if that), but assuming no other forms of discrimination, the number of students who slip through the net that way would be the same for both populations. Now if we give population M a 5% increase in average innate ability, you are bound to see a greater proportion of Ms in mathematics, at all levels of higher education. This is partly down to the fact that there is competition for places, and also down to the fact that students are more likely to pursue courses they are innately good at (so the proportion of Fs applying in the first place would be lower.)

To my mind it is beyond doubt that innate differences in mathematical ability would affect the ratio of men to women in universities (and such a trend would be even more extreme at top-flight institutions, where competition is fierce.) What I'm not sure about is whether there are such innate differences in the first place. Neither of your two key problems seem to address that issue. Do you therefore agree with Larry's assertion that men are innately better at maths than women? It seems naughty to generalise like that, but then again the King of Generalisations is to say the average innate ability of both sexes is identical.

12:53 PM  
Blogger The Polite Liberal said...

Ah--you misunderstand. If there's any difference in innate ability, it's quite tiny and difficult to establish. What Summers was arguing for was a "tail-end effect"--that is, if you take two normal distributions and shift the mean of one, you see drastic differences far out on the limb. By such a tail-end effect, you can imagine a tiny difference in innate ability turning into a giant disparity at Harvard.

Nonetheless, you see drastic disparities even at the beginning undergraduate levels. That doesn't argue for the massive tail-effect that Summers was postulating, but merely some sort of systematic discouragement of girls somewhere quite early along the line.

I didn't address innate differences for two reasons: I'm not qualified to address them, as I deal with individual people (I have relatively few female colleagues, and only one that I deal with on a daily basis. She's much, MUCH smarter than I am.) and every other liberal blog on the planet zeroed in on innate abilities, and addressed them thoroughly. I thought the deafening roar on that point was drowning out the other problems with his speech.

As I say, isn't there at least some reason for skepticism when someone in authority immediately focuses on the one explanation that (a) requires them to do nothing whatsoever and (b) absolves them of all blame?

As a sidenote, I'm an older graduate student with a two-year-old son, and a wife with the "real job" that keeps us in house and food. Given that I've lost more than two weeks this semester to watching my son when he's home sick (and for most daycare providers, the slightest drip from the schnozz is "sick"), I have a certain suspicion that the lack of adequate child-care in the US has a lot more to do with the dearth of women (on whose shoulders child-care responsibilities "traditionally" fall) in top-tier universities than any difference in innate ability.

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