Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Scientific American: Summers makes a fine strawman   posted by Herrick @ 12/05/2007 07:32:00 AM

In economics, a rule of thumb is that an academic article that largely agrees with Herrnstein and Murray's The Bell Curve must start off by attacking The Bell Curve--maybe it's just a way to get past peer review, maybe it's a way of keeping your status in the academic community, maybe it's because they didn't understand or read H&M, could be all of the above.

The same is now apparently true with discussions of women in science: When arguing that the link between gender and scientific abilities is subtle and complex, it's apparently mandatory to attack Larry Summers for being simplistic, even though he himself noted that the relationship was very likely to be subtle and complex.

Latest example: Scientific American.

If Larry Summers's comments had one appealing feature, it was the benefit of simplicity...however, the truth is not so simple.

The multiple authors at SciAm march through the various hypotheses: work expectations, biology, glass ceilings. And they're honest enough to point out that there's some evidence for all three hypotheses--and they even note the apparent role of pre-natal sex hormones in shaping brain development. Just as you'd expect, they find at least tentative evidence for all three stories.

But it looks like the SciAm folks didn't even bother to look at Summers's own remarks. If they had, they would have realized that Summers himself could have written the outline for their article (emphasis added):

There are three broad hypotheses about the sources of the very substantial disparities that this conference's papers document and have been documented before with respect to the presence of women in high-end scientific professions. One is what I would call the-I'll explain each of these in a few moments and comment on how important I think they are-the first is what I call the high-powered job hypothesis. The second is what I would call different availability of aptitude at the high end, and the third is what I would call different socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search. And in my own view, their importance probably ranks in exactly the order that I just described.

Work expectations, biology, glass ceilings.
Yes, Summers weighs the alternatives differently than the SciAm folks, and yes, I'm conflating some issues in this short blog post, but you can read the articles yourself to double check the subtleties (e.g., the separate discussions of "abilities" and "biology."). But the main point is that there's nothing "simple" about Summers's story.

Just at Jason noted about the press's treatment of James Watson, so too with Summers: The popular scientific press rarely let the facts get in the way of a good plotline. The "Summers was simplistic, but the truth is complex" plotline is just too handy. Unfortunately for Scientific American, Summers, despite his reputation as a reductionistic economist, didn't fall for a "simple" explanation.