Economics and the mid-life crisis have much in common: Both dwell on foregone opportunities

C'est la vie; c'est la guerre; c'est la pomme de terre . . . . . . . . . . . . . email: jpalmer at uwo dot ca

. . . . . . . . . . .Richard Posner should be awarded the next Nobel Prize in Economics . . . . . . . . . . . .

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The Real Tragedy was Summers' Apology

I was quite disappointed to read that Harvard's economist president, Larry Summers, apologized so profusely for his remarks about why there is a paucity of women in mathematics and the physical sciences at Harvard and elsewhere. He made an empirical statement, and if anything he should have been called to task on that statement, nothing else.

Steven Pinker agrees (see here for the link to Pinker and more).

"People who storm out of a meeting at the mention of a hypothesis, or declare it taboo or offensive without providing arguments or evidence, don't get the concept of a university or free inquiry."

Also check out the posts by Phil Miller [co-blogger at The Sports Economist] and Sparky at SCSU Scholars.

Now, in addition to the two op-ed pieces run yesterday, the NYTimes has an article (registration required) that highlights two important observations/ facts/ hypotheses/ phenomena: (1) there are differences between men and women, (2) these differences notwithstanding, there is a tendency to discriminate against women in math and science.

Yet despite the desire for tidy and definitive answers to complex questions, researchers warn that the mere finding of a difference in form does not mean a difference in function or output inevitably follows.
"We can't get anywhere denying that there are neurological and hormonal differences between males and females, because there clearly are," said Virginia Valian, a psychology professor at Hunter College who wrote the 1998 book "Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women." "The trouble we have as scientists is in assessing their significance to real-life performance."

I think it is silly to deny there are differences between men and women. I think it is objectionable to question the appropriateness of examining the effects of these differences.

At the same time, I think there is little doubt that women in particular and society in general have suffered from discrimination against women in the sciences (see here and here for some pieces I wrote on this topic).

As for the NBER incident, I find it really objectionable that Summers apologized.

UPDATE: Anne Kingston of the National Post agrees, in no uncertain terms [$subscription required, thanks to Jack for the pointer]:
Lawrence Summers should be fired. Not for his musings on the
scarcity of female scientists at elite universities, comments that have been taken wildly out of context by the media. He should be axed as Harvard University president for his reflexive, cowardly bowing to political correctness. He issued three -- three! -- grovelling apologies for remarks he says he didn't even make. And then he tried to sweep the brouhaha away by throwing money at it -- US$25-million to promote hiring women and minorities and thus prove what an enlightened guy he is. Fabulous. So now women given tenure at his fancy school will live under the shadow that they're there not because of merit but PC affirmative pity.

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