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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Misreading Larry Summers

Continuing yesterday’s theme... There has been renewed interest in Larry Summers’s supposed sexist remarks. When Senator Obama (I almost said “President Obama”) announced that he would appoint Summers to be his senior White House economic advisor, bloggers and others revived the old canard that Summers believed that women were deficient in their math and science abilities. For instance, Wendy Hansen in the LA Times wrote as follows:
The notion that boys are better than girls at math simply doesn’t add up, according to a study being published Friday in the journal Science. An analysis of standardized test scores from more than 7.2 million students in grades 2 through 11 found no difference in math scores for girls and boys, contradicting the pervasive belief that most women aren’t hard-wired for careers in science and technology.it

The study also undermined the assumption — infamously espoused by former Harvard University President Lawrence Summers in 2005 — that boys are more likely than girls to be math geniuses. Girls scored in the top 5% almost as often as boys, the data showed.
The trouble, of course, is that Summers did not espouse that position. Summers did observe that there is a gender disparity among the very top mathematicians and scientists (as no one could deny) and proposed that it would be helpful to investigate why: to what extent is it genetic, and to what extent is it societal?

Although this question is precisely what a scientist in a research university should ask, it created great controversy. The very act of asking the question suggested to many people that Summers was assuming that women are less capable than men in math and science.

Summers had great strengths as President of Harvard, especially in his sponsorship of the Crimson Summer Academy (where I teach in the summers, so I can’t claim objectivity) and in his insistence on huge scholarships for low- and moderate-income students. Unfortunately his lack of social skills caused him to lose support in the Faculty of Arts & Sciences (though not in Harvard’s ten other schools), and he was forced to resign. Some say he has Asperger’s Syndrome; he might well, but who knows? Anyway, he has returned to being a professor of Economics at Harvard, and now he is a top advisor to Obama. I don’t believe that he’s sexist, but he clearly has some problems communicating his ideas; nevertheless, he is a distinguished economist with a lot to contribute, and he is an excellent pick for the Obama administration.

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