The shibboleths of academe

Posted: Jan 19, 2005 12:00 AM

The president of Harvard University is the last person you'd expect to venture politically incorrect opinions on gender and intelligence, but then Lawrence H. Summers is no ordinary Ivy League president. Last week, at a conference organized by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), Summers questioned whether discrimination is entirely responsible for the dearth of female professors in science and engineering at America's elite universities. According to some participants at the conference, Summers suggested that innate differences in math and science aptitude between men and women might be partly responsible. The remarks caused one participant, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) biologist Nancy Hopkins, to walk out, later telling reporters that she would have "either blacked out or thrown up" if she had remained to listen to Summers. So much for rigorous intellectual debate.

 But as uncomfortable as it might make feminists, the empirical evidence points to small but important differences in scientific and mathematical abilities between men and women. On average, women perform better on verbal tests, while men demonstrate greater visual-spatial capabilities, and these differences are more striking at both the lower and upper extremes of intellectual ability. Boys outnumber girls in remedial reading classes -- by large ratios, in most studies -- but they are even more likely to outnumber girls among the most gifted in math and science. In one study of gifted pre-adolescent students conducted by Johns Hopkins University, boys outperformed girls among the top scoring students on math by 13-to-1.

 For years, feminists have tried to explain away these achievement differences by suggesting that girls are not encouraged properly to pursue math and science. Lately, some have even started blaming the way in which these subjects are taught: too much emphasis on competition and being "right," too little on collaborative learning and nurturing self-esteem. But socialization alone can't explain the wide differences in ability, especially at the highest levels of mathematical and scientific achievement. Summers was really just articulating what most researchers in this area believe -- that biology plays a bigger role in explaining these differences than socialization does.

 Although Summers' original comments were made in closed sessions to an academic group -- and are therefore not available for public scrutiny -- critics were quick to take to the barricades. For example, Hopkins later told the Boston Globe, "It is so upsetting that all these brilliant young women [at Harvard] are being led by a man who views them this way." She went on to describe studies that, according to the Globe, "indicate that women score higher on math tests if there are fewer men in the room while they are taking the test." Perhaps the Globe misrepresented Hopkins' statement; Hopkins is an accomplished scientist who should know better than to attribute a cause-and-effect relationship to such specious data.

 But Hopkins is also an outspoken feminist. She made a name for herself in the mid-1990s by charging that MIT discriminated against female scientists, allotting them less lab space and giving them fewer plum assignments. Hopkins later led a university-appointed group to study her own charges, which -- surprise, surprise -- found gender discrimination at MIT "subtle but pervasive," even though the group's report fell short of offering evidence of such discrimination in differential salaries, for example. The report nonetheless concluded that gender bias "stems largely from unconscious ways of thinking that have been socialized into all of us, men and women alike."

 Summers, an economist, would have trouble accepting that kind of explanation. As he explained to the NBER conferees, if a school practiced that kind of discrimination against women, another school would gain an advantage by hiring them away. Since there is no evidence that is happening, Summer told the Globe "the real issue is the overall size of the pool, and it's less clear how much the size of the pool was held down by discrimination."

 He may not have won any friends among the women-as-perennial-victims set, but Summers deserves high marks for opening up for debate some of the shibboleths of academe.

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