February 23, 2005

Lawrence Summers and Patricia Hausman

Patti Hausman on how men and women think differently, complete with convenient blue and pink bar charts. (Don't you hate how most other contemporary social science graphs go out of their way to make themselves difficult to read, with the blacks being denoted by white bars, the whites by gray bars, and the Latinos by black bars, as in the Thernstroms' last book? The graphmakers wouldn't want to reinforce the stereotype that blacks are, uh, blacker than whites!)

In her address to the National Academy of Engineers, Patti admitted:

Most of the physical sciences bore me silly. Efforts to attribute my apathy to "masculinist bias" in the curriculum amuse me no end... Reinventing the curriculum will not interest me in learning how my dishwasher works. It is a thing and things bore me. People are another story. I find them fascinating.

Personally, Patti and I are on the same wavelength: I have a feminine mind in that I am far more interested in people than machines, but I have an extremely masculine categorizing / system-building mind in how I think about people.

One curriculum reform I've advocated for a long time is educating young people that calculus isn't the only kind of math that is useful in the real world. I was lousy at calculus, so I stopped taking math my freshman year in college. Finally, my senior year I took a statistics course and found -- "Voila, this is interesting. I can use this to understand people rather than my dishwasher."

Now, most people who write about society are far more interested in people than dishwashers, yet the Larry Summers brouhaha has exposed, once again, the remarkable statistical innumeracy of our chattering class. So, let's work harder to educated people in statistics.


Summers, himself, is obviously a stat-head who thinks, like me, in terms of bell curves, as these excerpts from his much-denounced speech indicate (Summers' methodology makes me wonder if he ever locks his office door and reads La Griffe de Lion):

The second thing that I think one has to recognize is present is what I would call the combination of, and here, I'm focusing on something that would seek to answer the question of why is the pattern different in science and engineering, and why is the representation even lower and more problematic in science and engineering than it is in other fields. And here, you can get a fair distance, it seems to me, looking at a relatively simple hypothesis. It does appear that on many, many different human attributes-height, weight, propensity for criminality, overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability-there is relatively clear evidence that whatever the difference in means-which can be debated-there is a difference in the standard deviation, and variability of a male and a female population. And that is true with respect to attributes that are and are not plausibly, culturally determined.

If one supposes, as I think is reasonable, that if one is talking about physicists at a top twenty-five research university, one is not talking about people who are two standard deviations above the mean. And perhaps it's not even talking about somebody who is three standard deviations above the mean. But it's talking about people who are three and a half, four standard deviations above the mean in the one in 5,000, one in 10,000 class.

Even small differences in the standard deviation will translate into very large differences in the available pool substantially out. I did a very crude calculation, which I'm sure was wrong and certainly was unsubtle, twenty different ways. I looked at the Xie and Shauman paper-looked at the book, rather-looked at the evidence on the sex ratios in the top 5% of twelfth graders. If you look at those-they're all over the map, depends on which test, whether it's math, or science, and so forth-but 50% women, one woman for every two men, would be a high-end estimate from their estimates. From that, you can back out a difference in the implied standard deviations that works out to be about 20%. And from that, you can work out the difference out several standard deviations. If you do that calculation-and I have no reason to think that it couldn't be refined in a hundred ways-you get five to one, at the high end.

Now, you know and I know exactly what he's talking about and why it makes perfect sense because we think about people in terms of bell curves and standard deviations all the time. but for most Harvard professors and other people who lack useful mental tools for understanding the human world, their mental processes didn't extend beyond a single word:


So, partly the problem Summers is up against is educational, but in large part it's moral: Typical academics tend to believe, deep down, that God made the universe just to boost the self-esteem of people like themselves, and that anything that disturbs their egos therefore can't possibly be true.


Summers also brings up the massive difference between male and female average tastes:

There may also be elements, by the way, of differing, there is some, particularly in some attributes, that bear on engineering, there is reasonably strong evidence of taste differences between little girls and little boys that are not easy to attribute to socialization. I just returned from Israel, where we had the opportunity to visit a kibbutz, and to spend some time talking about the history of the kibbutz movement, and it is really very striking to hear how the movement started with an absolute commitment, of a kind one doesn't encounter in other places, that everybody was going to do the same jobs. Sometimes the women were going to fix the tractors, and the men were going to work in the nurseries, sometimes the men were going to fix the tractors and the women were going to work in the nurseries, and just under the pressure of what everyone wanted, in a hundred different kibbutzes, each one of which evolved, it all moved in the same direction.

So, I think, while I would prefer to believe otherwise, I guess my experience with my two and a half year old twin daughters who were not given dolls and who were given trucks, and found themselves saying to each other, look, daddy truck is carrying the baby truck, tells me something.

Summers gets lambasted for relying on anecdotal evidence about his daughters, but you can see that it follows the massive, multigenerational experiment of the kibbutzim, where feminist true believers set up entire cultures to inculcate gender quality, and each one failed.

Something he doesn't address, but is particularly interesting is that a higher proportion of math and mechanics-oriented women are likely to be androgynous and/or lesbian. (Exemplified by the new UC Santa Cruz supremo Denece D. Denton claiming to "speak truth to power" to Summers while arranging for her lesbian lover to get a new $192k per year job at taxpayer expense).


Also, Arnold Kling has some sensible things to say about the Larry Summers brouhaha on TechCentralStation.


Here's a new website called Harvard Students for Larry.


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