Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Foot-and-mouth disease at Harvard

Larry Summers, President of Harvard University, put his foot in his mouth at a conference on science and engineering careers of women and minorities. He cites the following as possible "factors" for why so few women were on math and engineering faculties at top research universities: (a) Women are not as likely as men to spend long hours (80 hours a week!) to advance their career, and (b) Boys tend to do better in math and science in upper classes at high school.

First, take a look at a rather irreverent take on this by Matt Yglesias, a Harvard alumnus. Then, read this sharp tear down of Larry Summers and his arguments by P.Z. Myers.

I just love these quotes from Myers:

  • Guess what, Summers? Boys don’t have an “innate” tendency towards science and math. Leave them alone, and they don’t grow up into natural engineers: they become animals who like to eat and screw and scratch themselves. The most important contributor to that predilection for tinkering and building and learning is education. Any possible inherited differences are miniscule compared to the power of education and cultural biases.
  • And don’t try to pretend that socialization is minimal, when the president of Harvard can stand up and seriously suggest that many people are incapable of doing great science because they have ovaries. We don’t do research with our gonads, or our skin pigments, for that matter.
  • Grrr. Apparently, congenital idiocy is not a barrier to becoming a Harvard administrator.

The Honourable President of Harvard puts up a defence [Note: This link doesn't work anymore! See the final update, below]. In the first paragraph, he simply asserts that he has been misunderstood: "My remarks have been misconstrued as suggesting that women lack the ability to succeed at the highest levels of math and science. I did not say that, nor do I believe it". In the middle of the next paragraph, he says, "In the spirit of academic inquiry, my aim at the conference was to underscore that the situation is likely the product of a variety of factors, and that further research can help us better understand their interplay". I would say it is a very weak defence.

When you hear "further research can help us", you take it to mean "we really need to understand this problem before a solution can be found". It is this that upsets a lot of people, and I think their outrage is justified.

Update: Matt Yglesias and Bitch, Ph.D. have more to say on the Summers affair.

Update (23 Jan 2005): Here are some more hard hitting posts, with more links to commentary of from either side of the political spectrum.

Update (25 Jan 2005): Sean Carroll at Preposterous Universe has a round up, together with his own long essay on this issue.

Update (27 Jan 2005): I promise that this is the last update. Summers has taken the earlier weak apology off from his site (that's why the link to it, above, does not work); it has now been replaced by this letter, where he actually sounds a bit contrite. The final link is to a balanced post by a mathematics professor who calls herself moebius stripper....