Larry Summers redux

More thoughts on the shortage of women in top academic positions.

My earlier defense of Larry Summers brought a spirited and intelligent response from a (male) reader, which I was too busy to deal with at the time. Now that the Summers issue seems to be hot again, it seems worthwhile to post it. I find it pretty convincing, even aside from the reader’s side-comment that my original post was a poor strategic move seen in the context of my personal ad.

My reader writes:

Economists believe that they have something interesting to say about nearly any social phenomenon even when they haven’t really studied the relevant social science literature. Moreover, their norms, especially at NBER meetings, support the sort of comments that Larry has made in these meetings for 25 years or more–where the commentator doesn’t really know anything about the subject but wants to show off how smart he is (I use the male prononoun deliberately) and to do so he spins out four or five hypotheses that might explain the data (of which there usually isn’t very much—these ARE economists…) better than the paper authors have. Of course if you can go against “political correctness” in an organization long run by Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers’ chair Martin Feldstein, so much the better. (Who says Larry can’t pander?)

OK, so President of Harvard Larry Summers goes to NBER meeting, behaves as junior economist Larry Summers used to behave, and is suprised by the backlash.

Is it responsible for the President of Harvard –not only because of his national stature, but because he has specific responsibility for the promotion of academic women–to act like a junior economist rather than the President of Harvard?

In particular, should he be spinning out possible hypotheses without being in command even of the details of the research that he cites? (The author of one of the studies he mentioned says misrepresented the import of her study).

I don’t think so.

Now, as to the realism of the “content” (I think this is unduly dignifying Summers remarks to act like they had real content), advancement (even as undergraduate and graduate students), facultuy recruitment, and promotion/tenure of academic scientists and mathematicians takes place in very small organizational settings that are run by male scientists and mathematicians. We all know horror stories from women in these departments. We all accept the stereotype of (male) scientists and mathematicians as socially challenged. How hard is it to believe that social factors completely outweigh ANY possible biological/genetic effects in these contexts? (Especially if you include the choice of problems whose study is rewarded–after all not all science problems require whatever special skills might possibly be the subject of the biological bias you and Larry Summers mention.)

So I think Larry Summers flunks any reasonable expectation, either of a serious intellectual or a university president.


1. A reader who is the mother of an extremely mathematically gifted daugher (now practicing law) writes:

Males score about 10 pts higher at the mean on SAT V (which measures verbal reasoning), and outscore females on the SAT V four to one at the top end of the tail; this compares to a larger male advantage at the mean on the SAT Q measuring quantitative reasoning, and a 13 to one advantage for males on the SAT Q at the right tail.

It is a common misconception that females out perform males on tests measuring verbal ability. As noted above, males outscore females on measures of verbal reasoning; females outscore males at the mean on only two subtests: measures of verbal fluency, and of spelling, punctuation, and “clerical accuracy and speed.”

Camilla Benbow and David Lubinski at Venderbilt have this data, as does the College Board and many others.

The data demonstrating that males outperform females on virtually all standardized tests (one other exception — I think the only one — is AP Spanish) — is pretty frightening, but it doesn’t mean it was impolitic of Larry Summers to refer to these robust research results.

I do not believe it does women any favors to behave as if such information does not exist. You cannot formulate effective public policy in an information vacuum. Needless to say, there will be many females who outscore many males on any of these measures. This is in essence a statistical argument.

2. Another reader who knows this literature claims that the male advantage is restricted to relatively low-ceiling intelligence tests such as the SAT and Stanford-Binet; high-ceiling tests, designed to pick out the extreme right tail, show equal numbers. I’ve asked for citations.

3. A third reader points me to this Steven Pinker article whose reasoning more or less tracks that of my original post. He urges me to take the comparison to Pinker as a compliment; I’ll have to think about that.

4. Brad DeLong argues eloquently for two propositions: That the main problem is not the distribution of innate talents but rather a set of biological and social facts that make it more expensive for women than for men to make the investments required to win the tenure game in top academic departments, and that, since we can’t change the biological or social facts we need to change the tenure game.

The analysis seems convincing to me, but we can’t just assume a can-opener; someone needs to define a different game, and show how its adoption and operation would be incentive-compatible for the requisite number of decision-makers. (Second update: one of my readers answers the challenge.)

Third update Another approach: abolish tenure entirely.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: