Sea of Noise

Sun, 23 Jan 2005

Summers Misunderstood

Ginger Stampley commented yesterday on the latest brouhaha over some remarks by Lawrence Summers. The man does have a special talent for making perfectly valid points in politically unwise ways; but, regardless how unwise or even incorrect his remarks may (or may not) have been, Stampley's criticism is directed at a straw man:

Regardless of a body's position on sexually-based differences in brain chemistry and what that means for intelligence, it's pretty easy to understand that the people who are competing for top-tier jobs are all at the very front end of the bell curve anyway. If the question is about why some of those top-tier people aren't getting jobs at the same rate as others, it's almost certainly not their intelligence or ability that makes it so.

But, from what I can gather about Summers' informal remarks, that is not, in fact, the question he was answering. Summers' comments were rather about the ratio of women to men observed among those who are successful, i.e. the success rate for all women vs. that for all men, not the success rates of "top-tier" women vs. those of "top-tier" men. If the proportion of women who are in the "top tier" is less than that of men—an obvious possible meaning of "innate differences"—then in what many would regard as a fair and efficient allocation of "top-tier" positions we would observe a lower proportion of women than in the population at large.

The confusion here is analogous to that in the Federal Reserve study of lending to minorities concisely summarized by Gary Becker in his 1993 Business Week column ("The Evidence Against Banks Doesn't Prove Bias" in the April 13 issue). In that case, the study pointed to a differential in the rate at which minority applicants were granted loans as evidence of discrimination. Becker pointed out that one would, in that case, expect the rate of default to differ for the two groups; but it did not. Likewise, here the claim to be examined is not whether women and men achieve "top-tier" positions in the sciences at the same rate, but whether those who do achieve these positions succeed equally at the margin.

At any rate, Stampley goes on to say that this entire question is irrelevant. What's important, she says is "figuring out how to find women and minorities who fit the profile and how to encourage them to get degrees and compete for jobs" because "what we want is more women and minorities in top-tier science and mathematics positions".

Do we? I don't know about you, but I can't answer that question without first knowing the answer to the question Stampley finds irrelevant: what do "sexually-based differences in brain chemistry" mean for intelligence? Because what I think is important is figuring out how to find qualified people and get them in the positions where they can be most effective.

I suspect that, were we to do that, we'd see more women in "top-tier" positions than we do now. But nothing I've seen so far convinces me that we'd see an equal number of women and men. At least, not if "top-tier" means "best at math". (If it meant something else, like "best at managing teams of mathematicians", we might see more women than men! But that's a question for another day, I suppose...)

At any rate, I expect we'll be seeing more misdirected criticsims like this. And that's a shame, because it's an interesting question worth answering. It's also a shame that Summers apparently can't say so himself.

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