Friday, March 11, 2005

Larry Summers and Susan Polgar

I imagine you've already heard about the Lawrence Summers flap. If not: the Harvard president was attending a conference earlier this year where they were discussing the underrepresentation of women in the physical sciences and engineering, especially at the upper levels. Summers said that

1) Women want to have children, and as a result they don't put in the 80-hour work week that would make them competitive with their male peers; 2) the innate differences between men and women lead men to outperform women at the top end; 3) discrimination discourages women from pursuing science and engineering past their undergraduate education. (According to Nancy Hopkins of MIT, who walked out of his presentation, he ranked these reasons in order of descending importance......

Slate's Meghan O'Rourke suggests that Summers
"seems to have fallen prey to self-flattery's ugly twin: Because what I say offends the liberal dogmatist, it must be true. (And not only true, but courageous.)"

Summers's tweaking of liberal orthodoxy and propriety is nothing new. In 2004 he asserted that there were a million child prostitutes in Seoul, South Korea, in 1970 whereas there were "almost none" today, attributing the decline to free market capitalism. He was quickly called on this supposed statistic when it was pointed out that the total population of girls aged 10-19 in Seoul at that time was less than 700,000.

In 1991, when Summers was at the World Bank he wrote an internal memo saying that toxic wastes should be dumped on less developed countries-- a memo that was leaked to greenpeace and the world press. Brazil's then-Secretary of the Environment Jose Lutzenburger wrote to Summers: "Your reasoning is perfectly logical but totally insane... Your thoughts [provide] a concrete example of the unbelievable alienation, reductionist thinking, social ruthlessness and the arrogant ignorance of many conventional 'economists' concerning the nature of the world we live in... If the World Bank keeps you as vice president it will lose all credibility. To me it would confirm what I often said... the best thing that could happen would be for the Bank to disappear." Lutzenburger was fired shortly after writing his letter.

(Which undoubtedly says something about the sometimes malevolent influence of the World Bank, but that's another post.)

The problem with Summers's comments about gender and intellect is not that he doesn't have a right to his opinions.(of course so did Lutzenburger, but it didn't help him a lot.) Rather, as O'Rourke said,
Summers, as president of Harvard, has a stature and cachet few professors have. If he suggests in even the most nuanced way that women are innately inferior to men at top-level science and math, his words will inevitably be twisted...into something far cruder by those whose latent sexism is in search of intellectual validation.

would this cover story(7Mar2005) have existed without Summers's comments?

as an aside, here's another Slate article, "Harvard Inc. A new book on Lawrence Summers and the crisis of meritocracy*"

I found this quote from author Stephen Metcalf particularly amusing:
"As Harvard can afford to staff its faculty almost exclusively with superstars, and as superstars are loath to teach, the gap between the global power of the brand and the actual quality of the education delivered is quite large...But for many of its students, Harvard is not so much an experience as an entrée. For them, the Harvard name doesn't represent Veritas, but the current education mania on steroids, whereby the hyper-deserving earn the chance to enter the ranks of the hyper-rich."
(*a review of Harvard Rules, by Richard Bradley.)

but, back to women and their brains:
Brad DeLong notes--
In 1992, 2.8% of Asian-American women who took the Math SAT scored 750 or above.
In 1992, 2.1% of white men who took the Math SAT scored 750 or above.
In 1992, 0.4% of white women who took the Math SAT scored 750 or above.
In 1992, 0.2% of African-American men who took the Math SAT scored 750 or above.
Source: NSF, Science and Engineering Indicators 1993.

and, via Paul Goyette of Locussolus:

here's a nice profile of Susan Polgar, the top ranked woman chess player in the world.

Susan Polgar, who achieved Grand Master status while raising two kids

sundry chess women links:
about her sister Judit,here,
Wikipedia entry about the three Polgar sisters, here,
about Sofia,here,
an interview with Susan, here*
and a women in chess quiz, here.

*note the photo of the three young Polgar sisters, circa 1980 I'm guessing, with a certain well-known politician and his wife. The image evokes two contradictory emotions in me. I wonder what Rod Serling, or Fox Mulder or even Count Floyd would have made of this picture...