Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Gol, Mr. Summers, Math Makes My Head Hurt!

Originally uploaded by Peacebang.
The problem with trying to stay low-carb and get more exercise is that I always want a huge piece of toast slathered with butter after a work-out. This is the kind of issue that occupies the American female brain all too often-- don't kid yourselves -- which I suppose is why it took us until 1921 to get the vote. When the jailed suffragists went on hunger strikes in 1919, their captors tried to break them down by bringing them fried chicken. One of the activists, maybe Alice Paul, scoffed at this and said, "They think our souls can be bought with fried chicken." I have to get real quiet and cast my eyes embarassedly off to one side when I hear that, as I'm afraid my soul could absolutely be purchased for fried chicken if conditions were bad enough. I don't know. God forbid I ever have to find out. Alice Paul, forgive me.
Speaking of girlish weakness, Harvard President Larry Summers made a real doofus of himself at an M.I.T. gathering today by insinuating that women are inherently inferior at math and science. It's, like, biological or something. Fat-headed big shot Larr, he's so cool and famous he doesn't even have to acknowledge the myriad social causes for womens' historical inability to compete in the sciences. It must be something in the lipstick supply, passed down through the womb of our math-moronic mommies. Of course there were all kinds of dumb, easily intimidated chicks at the M.I.T. conference -- 'cause that's where dumb broads hang out -- and they're going to let him get away with saying that. Sure they are.
The last time I saw Larry Summers live and on-stage (at an academic hootenany) he displayed a combination of arrogance and social ineptitude that was actually tremendously entertaining.


Blogger fausto said...

Larry must be in big trouble with his mom. She was my economics prof in graduate school. She taught me how to use multiple regression analysis to model the economic base and project the employment and income levels of Fall River, Mass., among other things.

However, it must be noted that her brother and Larry's uncle is Nobel economics laureate Kenneth Arrow, and it must be conceded that filling the roles of Treasury secretary and Harvard pres requires a darn sight more grey matter than, oh, being a Beliefnet host. It would seem that, in the Summers family at least, intelligence is relative.

Perhaps Larry is just committing the common UU sin of projecting his own private reality onto the entire universe. Harvard does have that Unitarian heritage, after all. Where does the Harvard attitude stop and the Unitarian attitude begin? It's anybody's guess.

Somehow, though, notwithstanding Larry's private reality, I have a hunch that if all other girls were as dumb as Larry's mom there would be a lot fewer things like the "Yoni Endeavor" cluttering up cyberspace.

Blogger Chalicechick said...

(Insert wiseass comment about SMcIsaac showing up wherever there's a place where Harvard can be insulted here. CC's brain is too friend to think of one.)

Blogger fausto said...

Could it have anything to do with your sleep schedule, cc?

Harvard does tend to walk around with a "kick me" sign taped to its back, though. You have to live here. It's the academic equivalent of the Charles Winchester or Frasier characters on TV. But you can only jeer at them up to a point. After all, if there had never been a Harvard (or 'an Harvard?'), we UUs would most likely all still be Congregationalists, or maybe Quakers or hermits.

BTW, I want to take this opportunity to declare myself PeaceBang's newest fan. (I was going to do it yesterday on philocites' atheism thread but, well, you know.)

Blogger PeaceBang said...

Oh Smcisaac, it's too dangerous to praise me on Philocrites' site, because there's this rampaging atheist running around there right now, and he might get spittle on you. Thanks for the props, though.

Blogger fausto said...

You're right about the spittle. That's why I said it here rather than there. CC and I have already had to wipe off a fair amount of his spittle, when he showed up at Beliefnet a while back with his "pre-offended panties in a bunch", as you so artfully put it.

In a way, though, catching spittle has always been a Unitarian cross to bear. Just look at Michael Servetus, speaking of "kick me" signs. Or Henry Ware, speaking of Harvard faculty. (I'm trying to keep this post on-topic, I really am.) It's just that in the past we've been more accustomed to getting it from the theological right than the logical but non-theo left.

Blogger fausto said...

Okay, so this morning we're sitting around watching it snow some more, and apropos of nothing my wife, a highly accomplished attorney, says, "You know, I just don't get this about Larry Summers."

"Hey, you're not the only one. I was just writing about that on a UU blog," says I.

"I mean," she continues, "Why are all these women scientists at MIT so ripped? They can look around and see for themselves how few women there are at MIT. As scientists, aren't they interested in why that is? As academics, aren't they willing to permit free inquiry? Summers isn't a moron -- obviously, he must have been asking the question to challenge some unquestioned assumptions. I'm sure he wasn't expressing a personal opinion that girls are inherently stupider than boys. Why did everyone jump to the conclusion that that's what he must have meant? Maybe the reason girls avoid math and science isn't all environmental. I'm no dummy, but I hated calculus, and I dropped it as soon as I could despite loads of encouragement from my teachers -- how come? Is the liberal mind just as closed, just as much a slave to its own dogmas as the right-wingers they feel so superior to? If I can find the time I might write a letter to the editor."

"Hmm, that's not an angle anyone else seems to be exploring," I observe equivocally.

Does she have a valid point? (Or, more than one?)

Blogger Chalicechick said...

I think she makes some valid points, but overstates her case a bit in places. After all, a woman undergraduate at MIT would have trouble "looking around" and seeing much of a problem. With 42 percent of MIT undergradutes being female, it's only slightly hard to get a date.

Sommers partially backs you wife's points in This letter on Harvard's website.

Blogger PeaceBang said...

It might well be that girlies are neurologically deficient in math. Hmm, maybe. But I'm not really invested in whatever reality might prove to be true about why chicks can't balance their checkbooks -- what I really enjoyed was the affectionate schadenfreude of seeing a public figure make an unsubstantiated, biased remark in the blithe unawareness that he was soon to have his cojones handed to him on a plate. This is why I stick to preaching: the listening crowd knows you, and when they need to hand you some humble pie to eat, they'll do it with love and a cup of coffee.

Yay for churches!

Blogger fausto said...

what I really enjoyed was the affectionate schadenfreude of seeing a public figure make an unsubstantiated, biased remark in the blithe unawareness that he was soon to have his cojones handed to him on a plate. Gee, and CC thinks I like to take cheap shots at Harvard!

But I hear you. Even cheap shots can be on target. The inability to keep many different kinds of feathers from becoming ruffled is an even more necessary skill in a university president than in a pastor, methinks, and the schadenfreude was indeed delightful and undeniable, even if I don't deem it as virtuous a reaction on my own part as some in the audience may have deemed their own.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

(I'm not really 'anonymous'; I'm smcisaac posting after pressing the wrong link.)

Developments in the print media today shed further light on this topic, but also require some preliminary disclosures.

I must begin by confessing the reason why I like to bash Harvard even a bit more than the average Bostonian.

You see, about two hours to the south and east of here there sits another very similar, insufferably august, centuries-old institution, likewise established for the training of colonial Congregational clergy, an institution that has included among its theological company down through the centuries such lights as Jonathan Edwards, the Niebuhrs, and William Sloan Coffin Jr. While Harvard’s well-deserved honor for serving as the seat of American Unitarianism for many generations can never be taken away, its rival to the south does claim the superior distinction of gracing the world not only with veritas but also with lux, and to drive home the point places the words on its seal not only in Latin but also in the Hebrew original, Urim v’Thummim.So in the interest of candor and full disclosure I must reveal that I am a loyal alumnus of this shining beacon of lux et veritas.

As is also my old chum and classmate Sharon Begley, who for many years was the senior science editor of Newsweek and is now the science columnist for The Wall Street Journal, and who thus has not only a personal interest in Dr. Summers’ comments, but a professional one as well.

In her column this morning, Sharon perhaps predictably, but effectively nevertheless, refutes some of my wife’s doubts and generally sides with Peacebang, to wit:

Harvard Chief's Words
On Innate Differences
Lack Basis in Science

January 28, 2005

…Harvard University President Lawrence Summers, in a now infamous lunch address, suggested that the relative paucity of women in science and math (they represent 25% of the work force in these fields) might reflect "innate differences" between men and women more than social forces.

Scholars have demolished some of the widely held beliefs about why fewer women enter science. Contrary to myth, for instance, women are not handicapped in becoming scientists because social forces steer them away from math and science in high school. To the contrary. As sociologists Yu Xie of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and Kimberlee Shauman of the University of California, Davis, showed in a 2003 book, "Women in Science," "girls are not only on a par with boys" in how many math and science courses they take. "They also attain significantly better grades."

Their interest in science continues in college, where women earned 51% of the undergraduate degrees in science and engineering in 2001, compared with 25% in 1966. As Mr. Summers correctly implied, social forces shooing girls away from science just aren't what they used to be.

So let's look at "innate differences." Exhibit A for the innate-difference crowd is that fewer girls than boys score in the top 1% on standardized math tests in high school, supposedly a sign that girls can't master the math that underpins much of science and engineering.

But the gap at the top, while real, is irrelevant. Among those who ace these tests, boys are more likely to enter science than girls, who tend to choose other fields, find Profs. Xie and Shauman. Therefore, if equal numbers of girls landed on top, larger numbers would likely become scientists and engineers than do so now -- but men would still continue to hold more science jobs: Top-scoring girls reject science careers. (As an aside, Prof. Xie tells me that a fair number of boys who don't get eye-popping scores in such tests enter science and engineering, and succeed.)

Another tenet of "innate differences" is that male and female brains differ in a way relevant to the ability to understand and do science. Of all the claims like this over the years, the only one that has stood up even a little is that exposure to testosterone in utero is associated with better numerical and spatial ability, such as being able to mentally rotate objects or intuitively understand blueprints. Men generally have higher testosterone exposure before birth, when the brain is developing.

In a paper scheduled to appear in the journal Intelligence, however, scientists in Germany report that only women with relatively low testosterone exposure scored worse than men on tests of spatial and numerical ability. Women with relatively high exposure compared with other women -- half the sample -- scored as well as men. However testosterone boosts the brain's spatial and numerical ability, an awful lot of women are getting enough of it to benefit, even when they're getting less than men.

In general, for every finding that boy brains have an edge (they're bigger) there's a finding that girl brains do. For instance, scientists reported in Nature Neuroscience last year that women's cortexes are more complex, with more of the intricate folds that underlie higher brain function such as that needed for science.

More important, if scientists have learned one thing about the brain it is that our gray matter is highly malleable, responding to signals from the outside world. That seems to come into play with spatial ability. "You can decrease the gap in spatial ability if you remind women of their identity as Ivy League students," notes psychologist Joshua Aaronson of New York University. "When people invoke biology they're implying a fixedness, but that's not true: Biology can be changed by social context."

…The fact is, women leave science when they have kids. If you're pushing a stroller you're not building a quantum computer. "The tenure clock runs at the same time as the biological clock," says Susan Ganter, executive director of the Association for Women in Science.…

(Copyright 2005 Dow Jones & Company)

Anonymous Anonymous said...

(Oops. Yeah, I'm also 'fausto'.)

Anonymous Anonymous said...

(And oops again, when I wrote about two hours to the south and east of here, I meant west, not east.)

Blogger PeaceBang said...

This just in: Today (January 30th), the Museum of Science in Cambridge, MA had a Free Admission for Girls Day, and a celebration of womens' accomplishments in the sciences. Thanks, Larry! My friend B.J.C. went and took a couple of nieces with her.


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