Market Power

Musings by an academic economist on the power of markets and the power over markets.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Offensive Academic Inquiry

From the online version of the Chronicle of Higher Education (paid subscription required):

Harvard University's president, Lawrence H. Summers, has come under fire by some scholars for suggesting that one reason fewer women make it to the top in mathematics and science may (emphasis - Phil) be the result of innate differences from men.

Some prominent female scholars have called his remarks offensive, while other academics say his comments synthesized some current research on gender differences. Mr. Summers said his views, delivered on Friday at an economics conference in Cambridge, Mass., have been "misconstrued."

Nancy Hopkins, a professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who led at 1999 panel on the status of women there, walked out in disgust in the middle of Mr. Summers's speech, she said. News of the incident was first reported on Monday in The Boston Globe.

About 50 people attended the conference, sponsored by the National Bureau of Economic Research and titled "Diversifying the Science and Engineering Workforce: Women, Underrepresented Minorities, and Their S&E Careers," at which Mr. Summers gave a luncheon talk. While no transcript of his remarks exists, conference attendees say he discussed several possible hypotheses for why fewer women than men are in the top ranks in science and math at elite universities.

He discussed the theory that women with children are reluctant to work the 80-hour weeks that are required to succeed in those fields. Conference attendees said Mr. Summers then discussed the possibility that men and women may have different innate abilities that were previously attributed to socialization.

When Ms. Hopkins heard that, she said, "I was profoundly upset."

"That kind of discrimination holds people back," she said.

Others had different feelings:

Not everyone was offended by Mr. Summers's speech. Paula E. Stephan, a professor of economics at Georgia State University, said that Mr. Summers had organized a set of comments on current research findings on the topic and also put forth potential remedies, including providing professors with more child-care services.

I emphasized the word in the first paragraph above that clearly shows that Professor Summers was summarizing the research, not stating a known fact - the word "may". He did not say that women "do" have innate differences that cause them to be underrepresented. He said that research has explored the topic that women "may" have innate differences, a testable hypothesis that can, over time, be shown to be true or false by careful and dispassionate examination of the data.

Covering up such explorations for fear of offending people is one of the big challenges that researchers in the academic universe face. Such outcries in academia create walls that keep important topics from being explored and discoveries from being made.