Canadians, who often view Americans as reactionary bigots, might be surprised to find out how much more pervasive than in the relatively meritocratic Canadian college system is the thumb on the scale known as “affirmative action” in American admissions and faculty hiring. In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld, in the name of “diversity,” preferences to close partially the deviations from equal representation that arise when only objective standards are employed.
Yet, 35 years into the era of modern feminism and despite a variety of preferential programs for women, Ivy League colleges still offer tenure in math, science, and engineering mostly to male professors.
Now that the transcript has been released of Harvard U. president Lawrence H. Summers’ endlessly denounced Jan. 14th remarks on “Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce,” we can finally grasp what the brouhaha has been all about.
The former Clinton Administration Treasury Secretary has already apologized at least five times for suggesting two alternatives to the conventional wisdom that the gender gap stems just from discrimination.
Summers proposed that since winning tenure at Harvard requires focusing on the job 80 hours per week, young women who want children often think twice about undertaking such a grueling career.
As a lesser reason, he noted that males tend to vary more than females in many traits, including IQ and mathematical ability, and thus more men than women possess the peculiar mental skills needed to be Harvard scientists.
Finally, Summers explained why, as an economist and a follower of the brain sciences, he doubted the popular view that discrimination in socialization and hiring primarily accounted for the sex disparity.
As is customary in America when a white male authority figure utters a “gaffe” (memorably defined by Michael Kinsley as when a politician tells the truth), Summers immediately pledged to boost Harvard’s hiring of women, thus sacrificing other men’s opportunities.
Not surprisingly, however, by showing weakness, Summers just encouraged the feeding frenzy. The majority of the Harvard faculty (which has most of the power in tenure decisions) remains up in arms against Summers’ sexist allegation that they don’t actually discriminate much against women. Granted, it makes no logical sense for the professors to flex their feminist credentials by denouncing Summers’ chauvinistic claim that they aren’t that biased against women, but academic disputes are seldom academic.
Instead, they are mostly about money and power. It’s commonly joked that faculty politics are so vicious because the stakes are so low, but at Harvard, with its $22.6 billion (U.S.) endowment and pre-eminent position in global intellectual discourse, the struggle is hardly trivial.
So, how deplorable was Summers’ speech? It notoriously sent MIT biologist Nancy Hopkins fleeing like a Victorian maiden faint from hearing the word “legs” instead of “limbs.” She later claimed that she had to escape or, “I would’ve either blacked out or thrown up.”
Yet, when read closely, Summers’ off-the-cuff talk turns out to be strikingly lacking in outrageous soundbites. Indeed, the press, in its desperation to find something objectionable, has tried to tut-tut over Summers’ (ironically undeniable) prefatory remark that: “It is after all not the case that the role of women in science is the only example of a group that is significantly underrepresented in an important activity … [For example,] white men are very substantially underrepresented in the National Basketball Association.”
In fact, it’s precisely because the presentation by Summers, one of the world’s leading economists, was lacking in crude misstatements that it was so threatening to feminists. When finally published, it turned out to be humbly argued, open-minded, well-informed, logically rigorous, and, in sum, cumulatively devastating to the feminist orthodoxy from which many of Summers’ female critics have professionally and financially profited.
For example, Hopkins’s showy disgust was hardly disinterested: she had been given an endowed professorship at MIT and a 20 percent raise after heading the committee that investigated — conflicts of interest be damned! — her own complaints of discrimination.
Hopkins and company want to drive Summers out of polite society to prevent his insightful skepticism from undermining their special privileges.
This is not to say that Summers’ sophisticated attempt “to think systematically and clinically about the reasons for underrepresentation” would instantly convince those unfamiliar with the issues. But over the years, the example of the President of Harvard getting away with speaking the subversive truth about gender inequality would embolden others to point out that the feminist empresses have no clothes.
Let me try to outline Summers’ unusual approach to “underrepresentation.” He tends to view people relativistically, employing that most useful of all conceptual tools for thinking about both the similarity and the diversity of human beings: the probability distribution (more roughly known as the bell-shaped curve).
In contrast, most intellectuals today think in absolute, black and white categories, and thus they get irrationally upset by mention of any facts they can denigrate as a “stereotype.” Many seem unable to distinguish between perceptive observations about the average traits of a group and blanket assertions about each and every group member. Thus, even carefully worded summations of the obvious like, “More men than women find mechanical engineering interesting,” are indignantly countered with, “So, you’re saying no woman likes engineering? Huh? Huh?”
As a bell curve aficionado, Summers noted a widely observed tendency: “It does appear that on many, many different human attributes — height, weight, propensity for criminality, overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability — there is relatively clear evidence that whatever the difference in means … there is a difference in the standard deviation and variability of a male and a female population.”
In other words, as any woman could testify, there are more stupid men than women; likewise, at least in math and spatial reasoning, there are more brilliant men than women.
Summers stated, “… if one is talking about physicists at a top twenty-five research university, one is not talking about people who are two standard deviations above the mean. [In a normal bell curve, only one out of 44 individuals is that much above average.] And perhaps it’s not even talking about somebody who is three standard deviations above the mean [or one out of 741]. But it’s talking about people who are three and a half [one out of 4,299], four standard deviations above the mean [one in 31,574] …”
Observing that among the top five percent of twelfth-graders in math and science, it’s common to see two boys for every girl, Summers estimated that the variance in ability is about 20 percent greater among males. He went on, “If you do that calculation — and I have no reason to think that it couldn’t be refined in a hundred ways — you get five to one [males per female], at the high end.”
Actually, Summers was being a bit politically correct with his math. At three standard deviations above average (the equivalent of a 145 IQ), there would be over seven males for every female. At four standard deviations (a stratospheric 160 IQ), there would be more than 30 men for each woman. This also implies, correctly, that there are a lot more retarded men than women, but they don’t come up much for tenure at Harvard.
These proportions are not contradicted by the Nobel Prize statistics. Since 1901, women have made up four percent of the Nobel laureates in Medicine, two percent in Chemistry, and only one percent in Physics. Strikingly, no woman has won a Nobel in Chemistry or Physics since 1964.
Few would consider economics a hard science, but, for whatever it’s worth, the entire female sex has never won a Nobel in the math-intensive Economic Sciences, while Summers’ immediate family has won two: Kenneth Arrow is his mother’s brother, and Paul Samuelson is his father’s brother. (Summers’ dad changed his name for fear of anti-Semitism.) Both of Summers’ parents were economics professors, and Summers was, for a while, the youngest person ever to win tenure at Harvard.
Perhaps hoping that his toddler twin daughters would someday add their own Nobels to the family trove, Summers tried to socialize them away from traditional female roles by giving them trucks instead of dolls, but soon heard them saying, “Look, daddy truck is carrying the baby truck.” That’s just a charming anecdote, but Summers also pointed out the same resilient sex differences were found in “100 different kibbutzes” in Israel despite the fervent multi-generation commitment of the leftist kibbutz movement to raising children in an environment of utter gender equality.
Summers also mentioned the insight of economist Gary Becker, the 1992 Nobel laureate, that competitive markets make meritocracy profitable. Yet, “one sees relatively little evidence,” Summers went on, that any colleges were assembling “remarkable departments of high quality [women] at relatively limited cost simply by the act of their not discriminating,” implying that bias was already mostly a thing of the past.
In short, Summers’ speech represents an admirable model for how our intellectual leaders should discuss complex issues. And for exactly that reason, feminists are trying to crush it.