Larry Summers’s gaffe

The problem is in the variance, not the mean.

I was planning to let Larry Summers’s latest “gaffe” (in Kinsley’s sense of an imprudent statement of the truth) go without comment. Anything that keeps Summers busy answering critics instead of trying to raid my colleagues is probably good for the planet.

But a note from a reader and Matt Yglesias’s latest post seem to call for comment.

My reader says:

1. Summers does or should realize that he is never speaking just as an intellectual or as an economist, and that it is possible (and I mean possible) that his comments were incompatible with his role as President.

2. The content of his remarks seems entirely unobjectionable and probably true.

3. The behavior of those who walked out or condemned him is truly regrettable and I am disappointed that it has not sparked more comment.

I agree with #2 and #3 entirely, and #1 in part. The President of Harvard needs to mind his manners and to make sure that he speaks in ways that are less likely, rather than more likely, to lead to pernicious misinterpretation. But this should be a matter of form, not substance. It should not be inconsistent with the function of a university president to make true statements on important issues.

Matt, on the other hand, isn’t sympathetic at all to Summers’s plight. He points out, correctly, that the use of Summers’s statement — as opposed to its meaning — is “The lack of tenured women in math and sciences doesn’t reflect a problem universities need to worry about.”

That’s right. As Glenn Loury points out in The Anatomy of Rachial Inequality, we don’t think that the higher rates of mortality and incarceration among men represent a problem about which something needs to be done, because we think it reflects essential differences between men and women. But we do think that the higher rates of mortality and incarceration among blacks than among whites represent such a problem, because we doubt that there is any essential difference among the races that means we should expect, and need to accept, such a situation.

So Matt is right, I think, to say that Summers’s critics heard him correctly, and were reacting to the political import of his words rather than to their purely cognitive content.

But Matt goes on to make fun of Summers’s position. Yes, he says, men have somewhat higher quantitative reasoning scores than women, but women have higher verbal scores than men, and yet men continue to dominate various professions that reward verbal skill. Ergo, says Matt, we should infer the existence of invidious gender bias or social arrangements that disadvantage women in the job competition with men.

Well, yes and no. That invidious gender bias and skewed social arrangements exist it would be hard to doubt without deliberately closing one’s eyes and ears. But that those problems explain most of the underrepresentation of women among tenured scientists and mathematicians is open to doubt.

Matt misstates the evidence about the relative skills of the two sexes in a subtle but important way. What matters isn’t the difference in central tendencies between the two distributions, but rather their dispersion around that central tendency.

For excellent evolutionary reasons, human males display higher variance than human females on many important traits, including measures of mental capacity. That means that they are likely to predominate among the top one hundredth of one percent of almost any cognitive talent, unless women are on average much better endowed in that particular department.

So it wouldn’t be surprising to find that women, on average, write better than men do, but that there are more men than women among the handful of the very best writers in the world. (Of course, that doesn’t explain why men dominate the op-ed page of the New York Times, where great competence in writing is obviously not a required skill.)

What to do about this, in an increasingly winner-takes-all society that also believes in gender equality, is a hard question. But Matt’s attempt to mock his way out of it doesn’t really work.

Update: A convincing (to me) dissent for a reader, and other developments.

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:

3 thoughts on “Larry Summers’s gaffe”

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