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Improving Our Math

Like most organizations, the Prospect has a male high commander. But since we're liberals, the middle-management tier is filled with women, from Deputy Editor Sarah Blustain to Managing Editor Erin Pressley to Senior Editors Tara McKelvey and Grance Franke-Ruta and Policy Editor Dorian Friedman. The result, as Lawrence Summers has eloquently argued is that the organization suffers from a genetically-based inability inability to do math. On the savannah, you see, male magazine editors needed to know how to manage word and page counts in order to survive, while the female editors focused on building nurturing relationships with the writers.

Suffice it to say that this is become an even bigger problem than the plague of toy-related gender confusion recently sweeping the blogosphere. At any rate, we decided that some kind of drastic action needed to be taken to resolve the situation, so we decided to hire Joe Conason to come on board and help us out with our too many women problem.

January 18, 2005 | Permalink


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» Let's Talk About Sex from Centerfield
Some folks think we've been talking too much about the Democrats. Okay. Let's change the subject, to one specific Democrat. Harvard President Larry Summers made some controversial statements about gender differences, and liberals like Matt Yglesias hav... [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 19, 2005 12:02:00 PM

» Larry Summers's gaffe from Mark A. R. Kleiman
The problem is in the variance, not the mean. [Read More]

Tracked on Jan 19, 2005 7:01:05 PM


Yay! Conason rocks! Anyway, Conason replies to email, which is almost as good. Hope he's not leaving Salon, though.

Posted by: Paul Callahan | Jan 18, 2005 2:20:13 PM

Hmm.. does the gender imbalance also explain its writer's inability to count how many times the word "inability" is needed in one sentence?

Posted by: right | Jan 18, 2005 2:36:48 PM

Can someone confirm a rumor for me? I read somewhere that Matty Yglesias went to Harvard. True or false?

Posted by: jim | Jan 18, 2005 2:44:51 PM

there is evidence of sexual dimorphism in the human brain. On average, males could have better spatial ability, and females a verbal edge. Ask a neuroscientist.

Just because we find the idea that there is prefect equality between the sexes comforting, does not make it the case.

Posted by: Dolemite | Jan 18, 2005 3:01:28 PM

Bonus points for Matt if he finds a way to name-check Natalie Portman before letting this thread go entirely...

Posted by: oodja | Jan 18, 2005 3:04:34 PM

Blogs are the best thing ever, where else can you get a realtime science lesson from Dolemite?

Posted by: Give up | Jan 18, 2005 3:05:28 PM

Several years ago, Summers was seen around town with Laura Ingram so I can see where he might have gotten the idea.

Posted by: Angela | Jan 18, 2005 3:24:36 PM

Ninety-eight percent of the time, Yglesias eschews mindlessness and misplaced sarcasm. But when it comes to well-established sex differences--toy preference, male predominance at the extremes, scoring extremely high on standardized math tests, certain modes of spatial reasoning--suddenly he's dismissive, mocking and contemptuous. Which is fine, but not in the teeth of the evidence. This is liberal kneejerk irrationality not that different from the dogmatism of the fundies in regard to evolution.

Posted by: Seenthedata | Jan 18, 2005 3:49:41 PM

Matt's done a faith-based post on a "reality-based weblog." Indeed, there is well-established research on the effects of sex hormones on cognitive function (start giggling). It also demonstrates the narrowness of the debate on elite campuses when a centrist Democrat like Larry Summers anchors the extreme right of the political specturm.

It may be Matt's youth rather than political correctly. After you're married, your wife straightens you out when you treat her "the same" as you would a man.

Posted by: Rick (Centrist Coalition) | Jan 18, 2005 4:04:07 PM

Even if there is biological or biochemical inequality written into the genders, there is ample evidence to suggest that said biology/biochemistry is itself fungible and may respond to environmental factors. Which makes the whole nature vs. nurture argument a circular one:

"Deborah Blum, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, observes that the testosterone levels of female lawyers or police officers are higher than those of stay-at-home mothers. She notes that one cannot ascertain whether the testosterone level influenced the career choice or vice versa, thus indicating how biological and social forces cannot be wholly separated." (from Enotes)

Her book, Sex on the Brain, is an interesting and thoughtful meditation on the subject of essentialism versus social constructionism...

Posted by: oodja | Jan 18, 2005 4:18:00 PM

After you're married, your wife straightens you out when you treat her "the same" as you would a man.

Unless your wife is "into that", nudge nudge wink wink.

By the way, did you know that testosterone levels in married males experience a marked drop over time? Nature or nurture indeed...

Posted by: oodja | Jan 18, 2005 4:21:38 PM

Also, let's be serious here. The number of PhD's going to women in math-related fields (physical sciences, CS, engineering, math) is miniscule -- physics and chemistry do the best at under 20% while CS and math are in the neighborhood of 10%. The percentage of them ending up as professors is even smaller. If "the genders are different" was a complete explanation of that gap, don't you suppose someone would have actually found a reasonable scientific explanation by now? I mean, that's way, way outside of the normal expectation.

Posted by: JBL | Jan 18, 2005 4:28:57 PM

I've always enjoyed the friendly little give-and-take between Summers and his center-left economist buddy Krugman over the years. Cases in point:

Krugman: The point of this comparison is not that Mr. Summers is smarter than Mr. Lindsey; Mr. Summers is brilliant (ask him, he'll tell you), but Mr. Lindsey is no dummy.

Krugman again: Even if a year from now Mr. Summers himself is forced to seek alternative employment (spokesman for Jenny Craig? Sorry, couldn't help myself), there will still be dozens of other former professors in key policy positions from the International Monetary Fund to the Bank of England.

Actually, that just sounds like Krugman ripping on Summers unilaterally. I get the impression that even among the ultra-nerdy economist community, Summers is the King Nerd.

Posted by: JP | Jan 18, 2005 4:30:30 PM

I don't think that gender differences are the main cause of the disparity, just that they contribute to it, and it should be permissible to talk about it.

Having gone to MIT, and had Electrical Engineering classes where there were, say 90 men and 3 women in a class, I don't think that's biology. Once something gets that far out of whack, it becomes self-reinforcing and can create an intimidating atmosphere. On the other hand, the 3 women would get a lot of offers to help them with their homework!

Posted by: Rick (Centrist Coalition) | Jan 18, 2005 4:54:25 PM

I do remember just using real data in a stat class to show that high school girls were "smarter" than high school boys, in all fields (eg, they scored better on standardized tests and got better grades). So shall we use this data to say men are stupid? Hmmm, why not, knee-jerk reactionaries?

I'm sure there are real differences between men and women, aside from the obvious one. But so far, no one has unearthed a physical reason why the math and science fields are male dominated. Or have they? If so, point me to it.

Posted by: Timothy Klein | Jan 18, 2005 5:09:32 PM

Of course, reading this post we're supposed to forget that journalism is stocked full of both men wnd women who can't do math at all.

Posted by: Brandon | Jan 18, 2005 5:27:45 PM

This thread, and the one following Matt’s previous post on this subject, contain more heat than light. This in itself casts some light on President Summers’s remarks and the controversy they generated.
Two main points raised by those inclined to defend Summers are: (1) Liberals get all upset whenever anyone questions the dogma that talents and the inclination to develop them are equally distributed between men and women. But (2) It is important to investigate fairly all hypotheses about important social questions, and all Summers was doing was calling attention to a hypothesis that ought to be considered. It is worth asking, however, what hypothesis exactly he was raising and why anyone would object to his doing so.
Consider an analogous situation that arises in some debates. (I exaggerate slightly to make the point.) One person objects to what everyone admits is a very significant inequality. Another person responds: “But who thinks every thing should be exactly equal? That would be boring, and impossible to enforce. After all, people are different.” Why is this irritating? Because a person who holds that certain large inequalities are objectionable need not be committed to the idea of strict equality. When inequalities are objectionable it is usually because of their magnitude and effects. So raising the question of whether strict equality would be a desirable or attainable ideal is irrelevant. Doing so is merely a way of “showing the flag” for anti-egalitarianism, and trying to shift the rhetorical ground to make one’s opponents look bad. Given this, it is not unreasonable to find it irritating.
The question being addressed at the conference was the marked under-representation of women in certain academic fields. What President Summers is reported to have said is that we should consider the possibility that some differences in talent and inclination between men and women may be innate. This has a stronger and a weaker reading.
On the strong reading the hypothesis in question is that the quite large disparities that we are seeing are due to innate differences, so there is no point in trying to change institutional and cultural factors. If true, this would be relevant to the policy question at issue. But is there any reason to think it might be true? Given the variability in the representation of women across various fields and in their representation within fields in different countries, it seems pretty unlikely that these are all due to innate differences. Changes in social policy have already made a significant difference in the representation of women in various professions for which they were previously thought by some to be unsuited. Is the suggestion that we should investigate the possibility that remaining disparities are all innate and that there are therefore no further impediments that we should be concerned to remove? This may have been what some people took President Summers to be suggesting, and it would be reasonable of them to take exception to it. (To do so would not reflect adherence to some liberal dogma of strict equality.) I doubt, however, that this is what President Summers believes, since he seems genuinely eager to take steps to increase the representation of women in various fields.
What, then, did he have in mind? Well, there is the weaker version of the hypothesis: that although the small number of women in some fields may still be in important part due to cultural and institutional factors that could and should be corrected, it may turn out, at the end of the day, that the distribution of some talents and the inclination to develop them is not exactly the same among men and among women. Well, who knows? I suppose it is possible that this might turn out to be the case. But what is the point of raising it in this context? Is it a hypothesis that needs to be considered because there is some policy decision that depends on it? I don’t see that there is. So what is the point? It stirs up controversy and provokes discussion. But why does it do this? And is the discussion useful? It stirs people up mainly because, in the context, people naturally assume the remark is meant to have some relevance to the policy debate, and therefore they take the stronger version to be what is being suggested. But in response it will then be said that this is not what was intended, and he was only raising the weaker hypothesis (to which only defenders of a rigid dogma could object.) This provides a moment for even moderate egalitarians to be irritated, and for anti-egalitarians to feel superior, and pleased that an important person has had the courage to raise their embattled flag.
No doubt controversy is often a healthy thing. But is this the kind of controversy that it is the job of a university president to promote, and for the rest of us to spend our time squabbling about?


Posted by: Tim Scanlon | Jan 18, 2005 5:30:26 PM

so we decided to hire Joe Conason to come on board and help us out with our too many women problem.

Yeah, but now you are going to be flooded with female intern requests because they want to feast their eyes on the dreamy Joe Conason, the left's hunkiest journalist.

Posted by: MattDinBrooklyn | Jan 18, 2005 5:39:25 PM

"Liberals get all upset whenever anyone questions the dogma that talents and the inclination to develop them are equally distributed between men and women."

Phooey. I walk the same halls, in the same way, and this is rubbish. Simple politeness by Larry Summers would be enough, let alone learning some biology before talking such trash.

Posted by: lise | Jan 18, 2005 7:01:33 PM

essentialism versus social constructionism...

that's the problem. very few "genetic determinists" (like me i guess) are "essentials." that's what we talk about distributions constantly. and most "social constructionists" generally argue that aren't blank slaters. so what's going on here?

Posted by: razib | Jan 18, 2005 7:35:41 PM

I have a dream, that someday we'll recognize that while certain abilities may be unequally distributed among races, sexes, orientations, eye colors, and so on, that it's still a good idea to determine the actual abilities of individuals before making final judgements about them.

I also have a dream involving whipped cream.

Posted by: Hamilton Lovecraft | Jan 18, 2005 8:08:20 PM

Wonderful comment, Tim. I'm not sure, not having read his full remarks, if Summers intended these comments as people are interpreting them. It's certainly clear he didn't mean them to be interpreted in the "strong" way that you speak of. But to those arguing that we should interpret them in the "weak" way and that as a result they aren't so bad, I think your last three paragraphs are the perfect response.

Posted by: JBL | Jan 18, 2005 8:23:19 PM

Lise is right. Phooey.

Posted by: Ari | Jan 18, 2005 9:05:58 PM

Oh, the phooey is for Larry Summers and his apologists. And I too am part of the community, so "phooey" again.

Posted by: Ari | Jan 18, 2005 9:09:39 PM

Two questions for Professor Scanlon:
Why is that women have been able to become dominant in many subfields of psychology and philosophy and yet lag far behind in physics and engineering?
How does he know that the differences between males and females are so small as to be irrelevant to policy?

Posted by: Querulous | Jan 18, 2005 10:39:20 PM

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