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Nature or Nurture?

Fun czars aside, one very annoying thing about Harvard was that every so often you'd get some awful campus controversy and, since it was Harvard, the awful controversy would work its way into the national media. Robert Rubin then decided to go make this problem much worse by getting his good friend Larry Summers the job as President, apparently with orders to go piss people off every 9-18 months or so. Is President Summers' problem in this regard genetic, or is it the product of socialization? I couldn't say. Now in my experience with any dorky, male-dominated activity, the problem is this: Every time a woman begins to participate in the dorky, male-dominated activity, she is immediately pounced upon by dozens of dorky, unappealing men. Some people have sufficient commitment to electrical engineering (or blogging or philosophy or whatever) to press forward nevertheless. The faint of heart, however, are driven away by the nerds never to be seen again.

Well, on reflection it would be pretty weird if that were actually the main causal factor here. This seems like the sort of situation that calls for me to pretend I know a great deal about hiring and promotion policies in the science faculties of elite universities so I could get all indignant like P.Z. Myers but what do I know about it? I did the absolute minimum science requirement and got my worst grade in my physics class. Not a real man, apparently. Since on the Savannah an ability to do integration by parts was crucial to male survival. After you've killed your, say, giraffe or other savannah-meat it comes time to divvy up the goodies among the different members of the hunting party equally. This requires you to calculate the area under the highly irregular exterior of your now-dead giraffe. Thus, even the Yanomamo, who lack all metal tools, can be seen using crude sticks scribbling equasions into the dirt.

Okay, I kid again. Ross suggests that Larry get a blog....

January 18, 2005 | Permalink


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Heheh. I can integrate by parts. And I'm a girl.

Seriously, it sounds like he presented some research data, and when other people countered him with trumping data, he was like," uh, well, I'm not really seriously saying this." It would help if the Times had figured out which studies were cited by who, and gave us an idea of what the hell people were actually talking about. The whole sequence of events is hard to piece out.

I recall that at the 1999 Centennial APS conference, I heard a speaker present a statistic that in some European country (Italy?) incoming physics majors were 50:50 (impossibly high by American standards.) Why? Because physics was required in high school. Girls in America don't take physics precisely because they perceive it as a dorky, nerdy, masculine subject, and they have that freedom. But then many of them never discover that they like it, and are good at it. So there are all kinds of interesting studies you can do. We know for a fact that there are all kinds of biases historically built into our society. So why not investigate alleviating those possibilities instead of constantly emphasizing this rather weakly evidenced evolutionary biology theory?

Summers ought to talk to some of Harvard's own stellar researchers on the subject. . .

Posted by: Saheli | Jan 18, 2005 2:08:08 AM

As with many things, it's probably a combination of several factors [wow that sentence is generic].

Saheli's probably right to, that we start segregating math and hard sciences as dorky and masculine somewhere between the fifth and eight grade. My K-12 school started tracking its honors math students in 7th grade and kept a gender-balanced group. The dropout rate was lower for girls than for boys, in terms of completing BC Calculus. On n a micro level, with some involvement and the statement that you are good enough to do it, you can close the gender gap.

I'm goign to make this claim without any evidence, but don't high-achieving high-school girls have more jam-packed extracurricular schedules than high-achieving high-school boys? That is, the boys who get into Harvard have qualified for the USAMO math exam (putting them among the top 150 math students in the country) while failing their English class; the women took the AHSME (putting her in the top 1-2%), but also were their schools salutitorian, edited the yearbook, and ran varsity cross-country. I exagerrate for effect; there are certainly do-it-all guys too, just as there are probably more single-focused girls. Anyone got a study to point me to? This of course just puts us at another nature-versus-nurture question though.

But at the college level, the notion that women can't cut it due to innate differences is just wrong. US-born women do pretty well at the PhD level. They do less well at the undergraduate engineering level, then even less well at the undergraduate computer science level (this is in terms of gender balance). Graduate school in CS has better gender balance than undergraduate CS. I don't know where math and physics fit in. Chemistry and Biology are skewed by people who want to become doctors.

In fact, the last point may be a large part of what's going on. See This post by Philip Greenspun on Women in Computing, where he points out that women with undergraduate degrees in hard sciences are avoiding grad school or professorships for financial or QoL related reasons. His evidence is anecdotal, to say the least. But even law firms are moderating their work hours, maternity/paternity leave, and core hours in order to make the workplace more female-friendly. Post-graduate degrees in the sciences often do not have the same cost-benefit value in raw dollar terms as an undergrad degree and can occasionally cause people to become "overqualified". In terms of private-sector jobs, a masters or PhD will open a class of positions that might otherwise be closed to you, but this class is pretty small, so unless you really find that set of jobs interesting, it's often not worth it.

I vote 100% nurture.

For the record, while this time Summers is off base this time IMHO, he was correct to piss of Cornel West. But I'm prejudiced with my general beef that professors don't take their undergraduate teaching duties seriously. Then again, not everyone can get into Brown, and my understanding of my sister's one-semester experience at UMASS-Cambridge [sic] was that it's simply not possible ugrads to get meaningful interaction with many of their professors. The difference between Harvard and Brown (a decent-sized research university with top-notch programs in Computer Science, Cognitive Science, Neuroscience, and Classics, among others) in terms of attention to research is like the difference between Brown and ... I don't know, Amherst? Bowdoin? Who can finish my analogy? So maybe West was right to defend his position as a public figure first, a published author second, and a class-teacher about eighth or ninth; expecting Cornel West to be, or even to try to be, Mr. Holland or Michele Phifer from Dangerous Minds or the guy from Stand and Deliver is simply unrealistic.

Posted by: niq | Jan 18, 2005 3:04:50 AM

Ahh, men.

Forget for a moment whether it is true or not, although I doubt it is.

This whole issue needs to be turned inside out, which is to say:

Do women make these kind of gaffes?

I mean sure there's Ann Coulter and killing their leaders and converting them to Christianity, but she's not fully woman, is she?

The question is important.

Do men have the requisite, innate social intelligence not to say stupid things in public?

Chew on that Akbar.

Posted by: Green Dem | Jan 18, 2005 3:55:27 AM

Since on the Savannah an ability to do integration by parts was crucial to male survival.

Heh. The forerunners of these (mostly) guys are the reason that we don't have to live on the Savannah anymore.

Posted by: TW. Andrews | Jan 18, 2005 4:37:02 AM

Razib at Gene Expression has quite a bit to say about this.

Posted by: TangoMan | Jan 18, 2005 4:37:52 AM

This is the sort of subject that brings out rank silliness. There's some appeal to the idea that men and women are different creatures, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, vive la difference and all that.

But testing shows at most things like a barely measurable difference in abilities like spatial reasoning for which the difference within populations is greater than the difference between populations.

It looks like we're not wired differently after all.

Posted by: bad Jim | Jan 18, 2005 4:51:34 AM

Women are hot. This fundamental fact will begin to seriously undermine society as long as society increases its proportion of geeks/nerds.

I guess I'm a geek myself but I've got a redhead and thats good enough for me so I'm avoiding contributing to a problem.

Posted by: MNPundit | Jan 18, 2005 5:07:48 AM

Jeez, Summers is so full of it. Can't we trade him to a Third-World country for something useful? Why don't we dump him on Iraq, or have done too much to them already?

Posted by: Cal | Jan 18, 2005 5:58:51 AM

Could I venture that none of you people have had kids? Girls and boys are different. From day one.

Still. Let's hope that regardless of gender none of them grow up thinking that it is spelled "equasion".


Posted by: am | Jan 18, 2005 6:03:48 AM

On average, women are more nurturing, shorter, have broader hips, can't jump, have a stronger preference for playing with dolls, and are more feminine, but of course even to suggest that they may, on average, be less adept at math, why, that would be a stupid thing to say.

Posted by: ostap | Jan 18, 2005 6:21:52 AM

"It looks like we're not wired differently after all."

Let's not exagerate here; If that were really true, all women would be lesbians, or something like that... Gender preference, at least, seems to be in the wiring.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Jan 18, 2005 6:55:58 AM

an ability to do integration by parts was crucial to male survival.

nah, but spatial visualization surely was:


Hormones and Intellect

What of differences in intellectual function between men and women? Major sex differences in function seem to lie in patterns of ability rather than in overall level of intelligence (measured as IQ), although some researchers, such as Richard Lynn of the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland, have argued that there exists a small IQ difference favoring human males. Differences in intellectual pattern refer to the fact that people have different intellectual strengths. For example, some people are especially good at using words, whereas others are better at dealing with external stimuli, such as identifying an object in a different orientation. Two individuals may have differing cognitive abilities within the same level of general intelligence.

Sex differences in problem solving have been systematically studied in adults in laboratory situations. On average, men perform better than women at certain spatial tasks. In particular, men seem to have an advantage in tests that require the subject to imagine rotating an object or manipulating it in some other way. They also outperform women in mathematical reasoning tests and in navigating their way through a route. Further, men exhibit more accuracy in tests of target-directed motor skills--that is, in guiding or intercepting projectiles.

Women, on average, excel on tests that measure recall of words and on tests that challenge the person to find words that begin with a specific letter or fulfill some other constraint. They also tend to be better than men at rapidly identifying matching items and performing certain precision manual tasks, such as placing pegs in designated holes on a board.

In examining the nature of sex differences in navigating routes, one study found that men completed a computer simulation of a maze or labyrinth task more quickly and with fewer errors than women did. Another study by different researchers used a path on a tabletop map to measure route learning. Their results showed that although men learned the route in fewer trials and with fewer errors, women remembered more of the landmarks, such as pictures of different types of buildings, than men did. These results and others suggest that women tend to use landmarks as a strategy to orient themselves in everyday life more than men do.

Other findings seemed also to point to female superiority in landmark memory. Researchers tested the ability of individuals to recall objects and their locations within a confined space--such as in a room or on a tabletop. In these studies, women were better able to remember whether items had changed places or not. Other investigators found that women were superior at a memory task in which they had to remember the locations of pictures on cards that were turned over in pairs. At this kind of object location, in contrast to other spatial tasks, women appear to have the advantage.

It is important to keep in mind that some of the average sex differences in cognition vary from slight to quite large and that men and women overlap enormously on many cognitive tests that show average differences. For example, whereas women perform better than men in both verbal memory (recalling words from lists or paragraphs) and verbal fluency (finding words that begin with a specific letter), we find a large difference in memory ability but only a small disparity for the fluency tasks. On the whole, variation between men and women tends to be smaller than deviations within each sex, but very large differences between the groups do exist--in men's high level of visual-spatial targeting ability, for one.

Posted by: reality_check | Jan 18, 2005 7:40:57 AM

But testing shows at most things like a barely measurable difference in abilities like spatial reasoning for which the difference within populations is greater than the difference between populations.

bad jim, stop talking out your ass, the difference in spatial visualization ability is frickin' enormous. see above.

It looks like we're not wired differently after all.

amazingly, you manage to embed two - count 'em, two - false statements in one stupid post. have you ever read anything on gender differences in the brain?? is Gloria Steinem the only guide you need to functional genomics? kindly STFU if you don't know what you're talking about.


Refuting 30 years of scientific theory that solely credits hormones for brain development, UCLA scientists have identified 54 genes that may explain the different organization of male and female brains. Published in the October edition of the journal Molecular Brain Research, the UCLA discovery suggests that sexual identity is hard-wired into the brain before birth and may offer physicians a tool for gender assignment of babies born with ambiguous genitalia.

"Our findings may help answer an important question — why do we feel male or female?" said Dr. Eric Vilain, assistant professor of human genetics and urology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and a pediatrician at UCLA's Mattel Children's Hospital. "Sexual identity is rooted in every person's biology before birth and springs from a variation in our individual genome."

Since the 1970s, scientists have believed that estrogen and testosterone were wholly responsible for sexually organizing the brain. In other words, a fetal brain simply needed to produce more testosterone to become male. Recent evidence, however, indicates that hormones cannot explain everything about the sexual differences between male and female brains.

Vilain and his colleagues explored whether genetic influences could explain the variations between male and female brains. Using two genetic testing methods, they compared the production of genes in male and female brains in embryonic mice — long before the animals developed sex organs.

To their surprise, the researchers found 54 genes produced in different amounts in male and female mouse brains, prior to hormonal influence. Eighteen of the genes were produced at higher levels in the male brains; 36 were produced at higher levels in the female brains.

Posted by: reality_check | Jan 18, 2005 7:51:19 AM

Summers suffers from foot-in-mouth disease. He's an idiot.

The chief--in fact, one might say only--job of a president of a private university is fund raising. Summers really should consider sticking to that.

Summers embarrassed himself, the NBER and, to some extent, Harvard.

Posted by: raj | Jan 18, 2005 8:21:43 AM

There are obvious differences between men and women; some of them go right down to reproducible differences in the organization of the brain. The question, though, is whether those differences have any significant effect on men and women's ability to do calculus or manage a research lab or write grant proposals. I say they don't. The success of women who make it to the top at elite schools pretty much shows that they don't.

The Vilain results aren't at all surprising -- that's a predictable consequence of the early epigenetic interactions in the genome. We've also known about the effects of gene imprinting, so there are differences introduced right at fertilization. Again, the question is whether these differences are at all significant in any terms, and especially in terms of whether they lead to real differences in the adult capacity to do something as abstract and complex as scientific research.

As for the earlier commenter who wondered if anyone has kids: I've got three. The two boys are completely different from one another, as different from each other as they are from their sister. Anyone who thinks they can adequately categorize their children's personalities and abilities by saying this one is a girl and that one is a boy hasn't been paying much attention to their kids.

Posted by: PZ Myers | Jan 18, 2005 8:21:57 AM

I think the key point here, is that whatever contribution genetics may make to intellectual potential, on a statistical basis, it has nothing to say on an individual basis. There are geniuses and idiots of both genders.

However, it is somewhat foolish to assume, a priori, that a complete absence of gender discrimination would result in equal sex ratios in every segment of society. On the contrary, to the extent that we equalize nurture, what's left to cause differences save nature?

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Jan 18, 2005 8:37:36 AM

Well, as someone who spent some time in academia I'd say, anecdotally, women get pretty screwed by the system.

Posted by: Atrios | Jan 18, 2005 8:50:16 AM

As Razib points out elsewhere: One must remember that slight differences in the mean of two different distributions (imagine male and female mathematical aptitude) might result in very different numbers at the tails. For example, assume a "mathematical IQ test," where the mean for the population is 100, with a standard deviation of 15 points. Assume that the sex ratio is 50:50, if women had a mathematical IQ of 99, and men one of 101, a slight 2 point difference, while 0.47% of males would have scores above 140, 0.32% of females would have such scores. If a mathematical IQ of 140 is the minimum needed for someone to make enough of an impact to attain tenure, then you already have the die loaded toward males by a factor of 1.5. The SAT subtests have a standard deviation of 110, and in 2003 females scored a 503 on the math section, while males scored 537. Despite the modest mean difference, there tends to a rather large skew toward males at the very high end of the score distribution.
What does this mean? Even if there are only very small average differences in spatial reasoning, there will be a much larger difference among the people who are best at spatial reasoning.

Heck, the same reasoning applies to interest too. If interest in engineering is perfectly random (which it likely isn't, due to cultural factors), and if men have a slightly higher average interest in engineering, there could easily two or three times as many men who are so obsessed with engineering that they are driven to become professors.

Posted by: Functional | Jan 18, 2005 8:50:16 AM

While males and females tend to average about the same on IQ tests, I understand that the male variance is substantially greater; Our curve is spread out more, with a shallower peak, so that we have both more geniuses, AND more idiots.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Jan 18, 2005 9:06:51 AM

So there are two indisputable reasons that you're going to find more males at the very high end of the scale in certain areas (the Harvard professor range): Greater variance in IQ, and slight average differences in spatial reasoning or mathematical ability.

Posted by: Functional | Jan 18, 2005 9:12:49 AM

the 'fat tailed IQ distribution' theory presupposes that successful male academics are all in the upper fat tail. that's just silly.

I can't comment on whether women are screwed by the system more or less in academia than in other places, but I can say that the get the shaft pretty badly in academia in a variety of small ways which add up to one big way.

Posted by: Atrios | Jan 18, 2005 9:28:55 AM

Well, they're certainly not in the lower "fat tail".

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Jan 18, 2005 9:46:30 AM

"This requires you to calculate the area under the highly irregular exterior of your now-dead giraffe..."

Actually it would probably be more fair to calculate the volume, not the area.

"Do women make these kind of gaffes?
I mean sure there's Ann Coulter..."
Don't forget Katherine Harris, Condi Rice, Karen Hughes, and from the way back machine, Anita Bryant.

Posted by: Jack | Jan 18, 2005 9:48:48 AM

Why isn't it reasonable to suppose that the very most successful academics -- Harvard professors -- are in the high end of the IQ distribution? Just what IQ do you think it takes to be a world-class academic? Being a Harvard professor ain't as easy as being a blogger, you know. Just any ole average person with a 100 IQ can do it? Or a modestly above-average person with a 115 IQ (some 40 million people in the U.S., by my guess)?

Posted by: Functional | Jan 18, 2005 9:55:59 AM

Could I venture that none of you people have had kids? Girls and boys are different. From day one.

Insofar as the latter have peepees and the former do not, well then yes, I suppose you're right.

But having seen boys from day one and having raised my own daughter from the same, I can tell you that any discernable gender difference in the behavior of a newborn is totally in the mind of the parent.

The social programming to treat boys and girls differently, on the hand, begins before the child is even born. My wife and I received multiple admonitions from both grandmothers-to-be about getting rid of all those bookshelves in our apartment, a purported plea for child safety that was soon to be revealed as a fear that we'd turn our little girl into a man-hating bookworm.

I also remember roughhousing with my daughter when visiting the in-laws, and one of my wife's aunts actually said: "She's a girl! You don't play with her like that." WTF?

Oh, and I spent enough time at MIT getting schooled on the bell curve by girls in my math and physics classes to know that Larry Summers is manifestly full of shit.

Posted by: oodja | Jan 18, 2005 10:03:26 AM

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