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January 19, 2005



Woah! As a fellow Harvard College grad here in the Valley, I'm appalled and embarrassed! I just saw him speak here a few weeks ago at the Harvard Alumni lunch in Palo Alto, and he talked about the importance of getting more women involved in science!!! What an idiot. Francis & Crick would of been two hacks without the support of a woman...she only didn't get the Nobel Prize because she died before it was awarded.


He does show some remorse in the following letter:


A lot of the men I know who believe that women etc. are less smart than men are actually dumber than the average woman.

So, let's say it is in fact true that men are more capable than women ... only certain men should run around playing this assertion, cause it's certainly false of many of them.

Nicholas Donovan

Let us remember that for those of us who truly love the sciences, it is by definition, a sexless endeavour.

It serves no one to engage in ad hominem attacks particularly those which are merely the opposite of the comment that enraged us to begin with.

Instead let us move on forward to a day when we are not judged by our sex, no special treatment is demanded because of ones sex and let us remember that for every equal right, there exists and equal responsibility.

Perhaps there are some laws of common sense which require investigation as well as those of physics.




It will take significant SOCIAL and cultural adjustment for women to contribute in the same numbers to the sciences as men currently. (Larry should recognize that the genetics for great women scientists are there - genetic variation provides that). Unfortunately, his comments only help limit and possibly reverse the adjustment.
Hopefully, the acceptance of women physicians will begin to move to women wcientists. From the beginning of life, most girls are "guided" on a path that takes them away from math and science. Much to our collective dismay, this trend shows little signs of abating, however, now the direction is not toward housekeeping and motherhood of the fifties and sixties, but toward sexuality and subservience.
What Summers has done (in a slightly strange way) is to challenge the leading women scientists (as well the men scientists) to prove him wrong. This will take time and not be easy. Furthermore, it will only occur if the social norms not only allow women in science and math but promote and celebrate intellectual pursuits rather than physical looks and behaviors.


There's actually a valid mathematical argument here. If you have a
normal distribution for math ability in both men and women, but with
a slightly different average and slightly different variance, you'll
get an exaggerated difference at the extremes. In other words, if you
are comparing people around the middle, you might have 95 women above
a cutoff point for every 100 men. Not a significant difference. At
the extreme, you might have 1 woman for every 5 men. In a demanding
university environment, where you are selecting from the top 0.1%,
you will get this effect, even if the average difference between men
and women is small.

Secondly, I think Summers also listed time off for children as having an
effect on female careers in science. This is a widespread problem in
demanding careers from busienss to medicine, and there's no simple
way to get around it (other than to give up having kids, which many
people seem to do. Hence the surge in IVF-assisted births to women in
their late 30's.)


I think there are a lot of possible reasons for why there are few women in physics. Many are valid as part of a complex package - gender roles, qualified teachers, societal pressures, discrimination, etc. My issue with Summers is discussing such a heated topic while wearing the hat of president for a very respected university. I feel that comments like "innate biological differences" from someone in that position, makes our already difficult climb up the academic ladder even harder. I have encountered some very sexist physicists and having Summers give credence to their belief that somehow I am less qualified based simply on my gender, isn't making my life any easier. Unfortunately, these generalized comments often fall heavy on an individual's shoulder.


First of all in response to the above comments about the normal distributions. Yes it is true that men have a greater std. deviation and as a result have more outliers on the very intelligent end. However, the data points to a discrepancy in female involvement in math and science far out of proportion to this effect. I believe the question for most economist and social sciences, and what Summers was addressing is how to explain this *additional* effect.

In any case I would like to say I appreciate the reasonableness of the remarks in this blog and the straightforward recognition that this is a hard problem and that all angles of the problem must be studied. Unlike some of the other comments and far too many of the responses I have seen the original poster seemed to be able to diffrentiate the statistical possibility of a genetic effect from the claim that women can't do science. No matter what else you might think about this incident it simply isn't relevant to make assertions about individual women you have known or to declare women can do anything men can do, both may be true but this is a statistical question not a matter of individuals.

I even agree with the orginal posters remarks as far as they go. Though in my personal discussions things did not break down by gender lines, though women, since they are more personally affected, were much more likely to take things personally or emotionally in this context. I do not mean to make some underhanded attack or imply that the women's position is somehow tainted by their emotional involvement. Rather I just mean to point out there is a perfectly plausible alternative explanation for the gender breakdown other than the implied lack of progress/sensitivity by men. Just as the fact that property owners would be most likely to be upset about a property tax would tell us nothing about the worthiness of that tax here too we should not assume that the differential response from men and women is something sinister.

However, what the poster answers is only half the question. Yes, what the Harvard president said was tactless and arguably pragmatically a poor choice, though some might argue the additional attention will result in more good than harm. Yet this is really just another way of saying that his remarks offended alot of people. Yes, university administrators are supposed to remain in the domain of publicly acceptable ideas and Mr. Summers stepped out of this domain but what is and is not a publicly acceptable idea is not fixed in stone.

So the other half of the question remains. Is it reasonable or good that the public regards these remarks as tasteless. At one point after all remarking that the earth was not the center of the universe would have been similarly regarded. Intellectuals might have realized that this was a serious question that deserved study but saying it publicly was most surely not acceptable as it might cause many people to doubt their faith. I see a great many similarities to this situation. Though unlike with Galileo I expect open and unbiased scrutiny to expose *most* of this observed difference to be social.

So yes, Mr. Summers was tactless and probably counterproductive for Harvard in particular. However, this in no way answers the question of whether those who are critisizing him are themselves not a worse problem. At worst Mr. Summers bumbled his PR job but all the flies buzzing around critisizing him do infinitely worse and chill any discourse in this area. If the original poster agrees that open and honest research needs to be done in this area how does she expect it to happen in the enviornment created by the reaction to Mr. Summers. This clear societal attitude that it is not okay to even consider the possibility of a genetic role just fans the flames of sucpiscion of those who are inclined toward bias and discrimination. So while I agree that Mr. Summers made a mistake thinking he could quietly go on with speculative academic work in such an emotionally intense field while president of Harvard singling him out as the problem in this conversation ignores the real difficulties.

In particular that we should aim to have a society where no idea is tactless to consider for the sake of argument. Nature doesn't respect our prejudices and convictions and it is only by considering all possibilities with an open mind that society can get to the truth.


In succinct and short form I guess my point is as follows:

I have yet to hear a compelling argument linking Mr. Summers remarks with negative consequences for the status of women in general. No doubt this might have some negative effects on harvard's image but the idea that someone was sitting out their listening to the TV and saying, "well it the president of Harvard considers the possibility that women are genetically less disposed toward math and science than men then gosh darn't I'm going to discriminate." So if you want to critisize the remarks as more than just in poor taste, which is really just another way of saying some people didn't like them, we would need an argument about what kind of harm they cause.

On the other hand the barrage of criticism of Mr. Summers remarks has an obvious and clear negative effect. Anyone paying the slightest attention to the debate will leave with the message that anyone who even speculates about genetic roles gets screwed. I don't doubt that the effect of this will be to chill straightforward research and public debate on this issue. Furthermore, this chill only benefits those who have a stake in not seeing the truth come out. If you really believe that there is a strong social pressure against women in science, as I tend to find credible, then encouraging this sort of research is the best way to establish your point. Attacking someone for suggesting an explanation only serves to make others doubt the objectivity of your claims and discourage those who would dispassionatly report their findings from studying the field lest their results not please the accepted viewpoint.

So while certainly the tactfull thing to do is only mention Mr. Summers tactlessness I think a look at the broader picture reveals more of the fault to lie in the responses than the remarks themselves.


logicnazi -

I disagree. I am actually a strong supporter of such heated topics being researched and I disagree that criticizing Summers will harm that effort. I am not in favor of Summers, who does not have a background in this type of research, using it as one of only three possibilities to explain the lack of women in science (the other two being the desire to have children and discrimination). If a professor, who had actual experimental research on the topic, wanted to put forth the hypothesis that women were at an innate disadvantage in math and science and had a study to address his thesis, I wouldn't have made a peep.

I also think I am entitled to criticize his statements. "Political correctness" or not, I think the president of a university is a glorified PR position and should be treated accordingly. Considering that Summers is president of my alma mater and the fact that I feel his comments were not thoroughly researched nor supported but rather used as a tool to "provoke," I think I have every right to criticize and question his comments - isn't that foundation for assuring good science, let alone good logic? I do not wish to censor the man, but I feel I have every right to criticize. I am not alone in my criticism of him as a university president, many Harvard faculty members have also questioned his leadership (http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/26/education/26harvard.html).

Lastly, discrimination is often not a conscience act. It is more often than not subtle and shaped by the field's culture. Inwardly, physics has tried very hard to improve its reputation as sexist. For someone not even in the field to question a woman's innate ability in physics without much in terms of scientific support, I think sends the wrong message, one we are trying very hard to change.

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