Dear Larry

In 2005, I was a philosophy graduate student across the Charles River from MIT where the then president of Harvard, Lawrence Summers, made his infamous remarks questioning the intellectual capabilities of women. He was giving a speech at a conference where he offered that a possible reason for the low number of women in high academic positions in science and engineering was due to an innate limitation. He said this was a more likely explanation for women’s underperformance than discrimination. I remember sinking lower in my chair as I heard the news. Summers’ remarks, though they were geared explicitly to other fields, nonetheless threw into doubt women’s capacity for deep thought in general.

In my field, I found that women were just as intelligent as the brightest men, the only difference was that there were far fewer of them. If Summers was questioning the reasons for the underrepresentation of women, then it would follow that he should suspect the same for people of other ethnicities. As Dr. Mary Waters, Chair of Sociology at Harvard said after his remarks: “Has anyone asked if he thinks this about African-Americans, because they are underrepresented at this university? Are Hispanics inferior? Are Asians superior?” Yet, this is something he didn’t publicly do, and if he had, he certainty would have enraged the public far more than he did with his comments about women’s inferiority. But I will leave that point to the side.

To be fair, in a way Summers’ claim that discrimination cannot be the cause for women’s comparatively inferior performance makes sense. We live in a society in which job discrimination is illegal and where there are quotas for hiring women. Furthermore, it is no longer socially acceptable, the way it was a generation or two ago, to discourage women from pursuing careers outside of the home. It could be argued that to all appearances, women no longer have any external barriers preventing them from success. Thus, persons such as Summers conclude that the barrier must be internal. I am sure that Summers, a person very much in the public eye, would not see himself as personally standing in the way of women’s performance. Indeed, he likely took his comments to be mere commentary on the facts of the situation—a neutral discussion of a phenomenon. Yet this is why it was so insidious.

Enter Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender: How our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference (2010). In this book, Fine argues that sex difference on the level of intellectual capacity is bogus. She analyzes the studies often cited by defenders of women’s inferiority, and shows how they have subsequently been proven fallacious by other scientists or that others have drawn the wrong conclusions from them. One of the most famous experiments that still captivates many, despite having been invalidated by subsequent studies, is the case which claims that there are cognitive differences between male and female babies of only a few days old: female babies are drawn to faces whereas male babies prefer mechanisms. The truth is that the science in favor of women’s intellectual strength doesn’t get much press. But this is only part of the problem. Even if there is no innate intellectual difference, why are women underrepresented?

Fine says that despite society’s attempts to eradicate explicit sexual discrimination, there is a more subtle type of discrimination at work. Recent studies in psychology bear this out. Fine highlights studies that reveal how we are deeply affected subconsciously by the expectations that our environment puts on us. In one study, a group of women were informed prior to taking an exam in mathematics that women tend to underperform compared to men, and another group of women were not. The group that was exposed to the stereotype threat performed far worse than the other group. Fine quotes Gregory Walton and Steven Spencer, two professors at Stanford University who argue that women’s performance is affected by stereotype threats like “the time of a track star running into a stiff headwind.” The reason that women perform less well than men on intellectual tests is a consequence of a tacit signal they are receiving from those around them that they are not good enough.

Of course, men are also affected by stereotype threats. Fine discusses studies that challenge the claim that men are “more aggressive” or “less empathetic” than women. One study, for example, reveals that men who are primed before a questionnaire that scientific studies show they are very empathetic creatures answer positively towards their abilities to nurture, unlike a group of men who were not primed.

What Fine suggests is that—whether we like it or not—the expectations our society has for us affects our self-perceptions, and thus our performance. In the case of intellectual pursuits, women still underperform men because they are getting the message that they do not belong there. Thus it is not enough to simply offer women equal opportunity. It is necessary for those in positions of influence to identify and eradicate the stereotype threats that they unwittingly promote. It is only then that we can actually achieve the ideals that liberalism promised so many of us centuries ago.

Leave a comment ?


  1. Larry Summers did NOT, I repeat NOT, say that women were inferior.
    He said that male intelligence was less normally distributed, therefore both the high and low sides of the intelligence spectrum should include lots of men.
    This is not contradicted by your experience – the women you meet in the high levels of the profession are just as capable as the men, there are just fewer of them.
    Even if you assume zero discrimination, and you have two populations with different distributions, looking at the high end of the curve, you should see a lot of the less normally distributed group even if the capabilities of both groups within that area of the curve are the same.

  2. Mary Waters is at Harvard, not at MIT.

  3. Regan Penaluna

    Thanks, Chaja. Corrected that.

  4. Regan Penaluna

    Aaron: he says there are more smarter men than there are smarter women, and suggests that this is innate. I’m not sure how this isn’t an argument for women’s intellectual inferiority. See his entire speech. Here is an excerpt:

    “There may also be elements, by the way, of differing, there is some, particularly in some attributes, that bear on engineering, there is reasonably strong evidence of taste differences between little girls and little boys that are not easy to attribute to socialization.”

    “The second empirical problem is that girls are persisting longer and longer. When there were no girls majoring in chemistry, when there were no girls majoring in biology, it was much easier to blame parental socialization. Then, as we are increasingly finding today, the problem is what’s happening when people are twenty, or when people are twenty-five, in terms of their patterns, with which they drop out. Again, to the extent it can be addressed, it’s a terrific thing to address.”

  5. I find Steven Pinker’s position on the matter, as shown in the following debate, to be a much more rationally persuasive explanation of the facts.


  6. “We live in a society in which job discrimination is illegal and where there are quotas for hiring women”

    I’m sorry, is this some non-standard usage of the word ‘discrimination’ I was not previously aware of? Or did you mean that ‘quotas’ are illegal but (thankfully) still in existence?

  7. Regan,

    You are confusing the median of a dataset with the distribution of a dataset. Even if the median intelligence of women and men are the same, there can be more smart men than smart women if the standard deviation from the median is higher in men than women – this would also mean that there are more dumb men than dumb women. Surely you would not accuse Dr. Summers of saying that men were also inantely inferior intellectually. Though these are saying exactly the same thing.
    You cite many studies that show that median intelligence is constant across genders – no one is aruging this is not true. They are also not relevant to Dr. Summers’ comments. He was commenting over the standard deviation, not the median.
    Dr. Summers is merely attempting to use statistics to explain statistical discrimination. There is little question whether the discrimination part is real (a quick browse of Being a Women in Philosophy should rightly crush that). Dr. Summers was just offering that the statistical part mattered as well.

  8. s. wallerstein

    Why take Larry Summers so seriously?

    I say that women are just as intelligent as men are.

    Why don’t you take me as seriously as you do Larry Summers?

    In fact, by taking someone like Summers seriously, you reproduce the whole structure of domination which Summers stands for.

    Until women stop taking people like Summers seriously, they will continue to be dumped on.

    Do you take Donald Trump seriously?


    Then why take Summers seriously?

  9. Amos (S.Wallerstein)

    The question is not why we should take the academic economist Larry Summers seriously. The question is whether the hypothesis should be taken seriously. The psychologist Stephen Pinker has asserted that “there is certainly enough evidence for the hypothesis to be taken seriously”.

    My understanding of the hypothesis Summers presented for discussion some six years ago is that the statistical distributions of men and women’s quantitative and spatial abilities and interests are not identical, that these differences are in part innate, and that this is one factor – but not the only or most important factor – that helps to explain the differences in the levels of representation of men and women at the higher levels of a narrow range of professions (in the fields of maths and science).

    I’m unclear that so very much hangs on the question of whether this theory is true, all that seems important is that its truth or falsity is not decided on the basis of whether asking the question offends sociologists.

  10. s. wallerstein


    The problem is that many people seem to think that a lot hangs on this theory and that said theory justifies the relative scarcity of women in the field of philosophy.

    Our blogger points out that this theory has been used to suggest that women have less capacity for deeper thought or that fewer women are “highly intelligent”.

    That is, a rather obscure set of data about spatial abilities is used to make women, a group of people already discriminated against and in general excluded from “what counts” in our society, feel even more inadequate. I assume for the sake of the discussion that “what counts” in society counts, although I really doubt that myself.

    Blacks don’t spend a lot of time pondering over theorists who use genetic hypotheses to justify racism nor do Jews bother with “scientific” hypotheses with anti-semitic conclusions. Gays long ago learned to reject theories which postulate their innate or acquired perversity.

    Yet women often seem unable or unwilling to shut the door on male theories which justify them sitting at the back of the metaphorical bus.

    Intelligence, whatever it is, may be something that one learns by standing up to those who deny that one is intelligent.

  11. Amos (S.Wallerstaein)

    “Our blogger points out that this theory has been used to suggest that women have less capacity for deeper thought or that fewer women are ‘highly intelligent’. “

    No, our blogger points out that she personally thought that this theory would wrongly cause doubts about the capacity of women for ‘women’s capacity for deep thought in general’. And our blogger, and other parties, have misrepresented or misunderstood the hypothesis drawn from a rather obscure data set as the claim that fewer women are ‘highly intelligent’ – even if the theory actually proposed were true, ‘highly intelligent’ does not equate to innate statistical differences between the sexes in one narrow set of skills pertinent to one narrow field of inquiry.

    The hypothesis drawn from an obscure set of data about spatial abilities has *not* been used to make women feel ‘inadequate’, it *may* have misused, and if so the problem is that the theory has been misunderstood and misrepresented.

    Gays – and everybody else – should of course reject any theory that suggests homosexuals or bisexuals have an innate or acquired “perversity” – but it seems quite reasonable to have discussed whether sexual orientation was acquired or innate despite the fact that some ‘interested parties’ wanted the answer to turn out one way or the other. Scientific hypotheses do not, of course, justify homophobia, racism or anti-Semitism. Even in the unlikely event that a well-founded scientific hypothesis suggested that there was a genetic factor in the statistical distribution of certain skill sets amongst different racial groups – suppose, statistically speaking, members of some Asian groups really do tend to be innately better at some things – this would not justify discrimination. Individual candidates for jobs or academic positions should be judged on their individual achievements and potential not on their skin color, sexual orientation or sex.

    If it is a “problem … that many people seem to think that a lot hangs on this theory” then they should be informed otherwise. And the theory does *not* ‘justify’ the relative scarcity of women in the field of philosophy. It says nothing about philosophy.

    It may be that statistical differences with regard to innate interests and skill sets are pertinent to the question of why there are fewer women in philosophy than men. And perhaps there are innate statistical differences in skill sets and interests that explain why there are fewer men than women in veterinary science and psychology than women. No such theories – even if true – would ‘justify’ anything – to do so would be to take a minor hypothesised ‘is’ and derive a bad ‘ought’

  12. s. wallerstein


    Thanks for clearing up some misunderstandings.

    In my family, my sister was the slow one.

    My parents treated her as “slightly retarded”:
    “retarded” being used in my family to designate anyone who did not always have the instant answer to all the right questions, the right questions as certified by my father and mother.

    She was considered dreamy and a dreamer, both deadly sins in our family code and evidence of intellectual insufficiency.

    I was labeled rapid, although sophomoric. My mother was more rapid and my father even more rapid, rapidness being far superior to Godliness.

    Of course, I enjoyed being the rapid one, joining in the general fun of putting down my sister’s slowness. My father set
    the ball in play, gleefully seconded by my mother and then by me.

    My retarded sister struggled through school, with fairly good, but not shining grades, but we all knew that public schools were overly lenient with the mentally slow.

    She read a lot on her own, but, as my father always wisely pointed out seeing her head in a book all day, those who can do, do; those who cannot, read.

    She became a librarian, a good profession for those who read books, but lack the stuff to write them. A job for women.

    With the years, I’ve managed to shake off much of my childhood mindset and I realize that my sister is the most intelligent member of my family. She’s astuter, has better taste, makes subtler judgments, is logically more coherent, is more “realistic”, less prejudiced and is more flexible and creative in her approach to issues.

    However, many years, actually, over 60 years ago, my parents, following their sexist prejudices and their need to put down someone weaker than themselves, labeled her as slow and that has shaped her life.

    You may say that things have changed, that those sexist prejudices no longer exist. Perhaps not in certain very select progressive circles, but once you step outside them, the exact same prejudices and the same need to dump on the weakest person, generally a female, rule.

  13. I would be very interested in hearing why we should place the burden on those in authority to stop stereotyping, rather than placing the burden on women to defy those stereotypes.

  14. Amos,

    I most certainly would not say that “sexist prejudices no longer exist”.

    Perhaps ‘in certain very select progressive circles’ – possibly amongst the Scandinavian intelligentsia –sexism has been eradicated. But personally I have yet to step in any circles where sexism (in one direction or another) is not present. And absolutely sexism still is overwhelmingly a problem that women face rather than men (though there is an increasing amount of sexism and discrimination ‘the other way round’ in academia amd amongst the chattering classes). And it is certainly much more of a problem for the working classes outside academia than it is for the middle classes that predominate within it.

    People have different strengths, abilities and interests – some of there *may* be statistically more pronounced or variable amongst one sex or the other and genetics *may* provide part of the explanatory story for that. What seems important is that any hypothesis presented about innate differences is presented responsibility by those who propose it, and that it is responded to responsibly by those who do not like the idea that it might be true.

  15. Calvin Johansson

    I think that it is impossible for any honest philosopher to deny that sexism is a fundamental component of human societies. The sexism has been either patriarchy or matriarchy. This fundamental sexism has been combined with racism and class in various ways. Because sexism, racism and class can be combined in many different ways to form the underlying ideology of various societies throughout history. For me, the big question is not why sexism, it is why do human societies need hierarchy and power differences as basic organizational principles? Sexism, racism and class are not genetically driven. They are the result of the way humans think that they have to construct societies.

  16. Aaron, you said, “Even if the median intelligence of women and men are the same, there can be more smart men than smart women if the standard deviation from the median is higher in men than women – this would also mean that there are more dumb men than dumb women.”

    Let me ask you, what is “intelligence”? Is it so easy to determine WHO is “smart”? Can such a thing be determined completely “objectively”? Aren’t there different kinds of intelligence? Aren’t different people “smarter” in different circumstances, depending on their life experiences (which may or may not have to do with gender)?

    Your comments seem frankly sexist, even in your assumption that men may be both “smarter” and “dumber”. And, your inability to let your point drop after Regan gave her polite rebuttal is, frankly, a kind of aggressive “male” thing to do. Just saying. 🙂

  17. PS – It is not possible for “male intelligence” to be “less normally distributed” because, if men and women each make up half the population, then the distribution of “male” intelligence” would be, by definition, “normal”.

    In fact, phrasing it in this way is to assert that “male intelligence” is an “exception” to what is “normal” – therefore, you are arguing that men exist on a higher plane (the exception), while women are simply “normal”. Obviously, this demonstrates Regan’s point, that sexism still exists in the academy.

  18. Jim, I agree with your point about the fishiness of standard intelligence measures. I also agree that it is also beyond any reasonable doubt that various forms of oppression exist in the academy (and elsewhere), including sexism.

    Unfortunately, it’s not entirely clear to me what you have in mind on the basis of your other remarks. Nothing that Aaron has said leads to any of the inferences you have suggested.

    Perhaps part of this may involve a confusion of terms. “Normal distribution” means something like a parabolic curve where most persons score highly around the median. This is also known as a (symmetric) bell curve. (You’ve probably seen it a billion times before: it looks like a camel’s hump on a graph.) Just because the word “normal” is being used, doesn’t mean that we’re talking about what’s socially “normal” — rather, it is just a statistical concept.

  19. Here’s an unpleasant but informative story of apparent persecution within Danish academia resulting from research on gender differences, similar to the Summers case in the USA:
    I think we have to be aware of the possibility that physical anthropology tends to support genetic differences across gender and race.

  20. I wonder why we would want to “achieve the ideals that liberalism promised so many of us centuries ago”. Might it not be better to acknowledge the differences between each other with grace, including relatively non-controversial differences associated with age and individual inclination?

  21. Calvin wrote:
    “For me, the big question is not why sexism, it is why do human societies need hierarchy and power differences as basic organizational principles? Sexism, racism and class are not genetically driven.”
    This is unargued and, to my mind, unlikely. Humans are a mammalian species and all other such species have social hierarchies, the “pecking order”, as is said. Why should humans be any different? I agree that there are domain general mechanisms at work (“reason”) in human society, but the evidence from empirical psychology is that there are also domain-specific mental mechanisms at work, distinguishable by speed of action, lack of conscious control and universality.

  22. Regan, you write:
    “Dr. Mary Waters, Chair of Sociology at Harvard said after his [Summers’] remarks: “Has anyone asked if he [Summers] thinks this [presence of differential IQ] about African-Americans, because they are underrepresented at this university? Are Hispanics inferior? Are Asians superior?” Yet, this is something he didn’t publicly do, and if he had, he certainty would have enraged the public far more than he did with his comments about women’s inferiority.”

    It is remarkable how Dr Waters observations support the findings of empirical psychology. There are indeed statistically significant differences in average IQ between Africans, Hispanics, Caucasians and East Asians, adjusted for all identified variables. The highest average IQ is East Asian, not Caucasian. Here is a summary of some recent research:
    A question that arises for me is the limitation on freedom of speech that follow from invoking an “enraged” public and the effects of this in closing down political debate on subjects like mass immigration into the USA and Europe.

  23. Hi,
    Good read. Just want to say that we should still also focus on rampant behind-closed-doors sexism, particularly in the sciences.

    As a PhD student, I attended an international conference. Like at so many conferences, there was a session aimed at post grads about what it took to make it in academia or industry. I arrived early and slipped into a seat. Two men came in and one was heatedly explaining to the other that his post doc had betrayed the lab by becoming pregnant and that he would not hire a woman again. This was an American academic-where postdocs in general don’t have a lot of maternity rights and don’t take a lot of time off from the lab. I made eye contact and he continued his tirade undiminished in tone or fervour.
    The panel was stacked with successful women and we were assured that discrimination on the grounds of gender was a thing of the past. I felt betrayed. They were refusing to engage with reality on the ground. The competition for funds and publications to keep a lab alive means that many academics will discriminate against this women who may have a family during their postdoctoral years-the two peak a the same time.
    The next day, I saw the ranter speaking encouragingly to young female scientists. I felt sick at the sight. When they follow up his offers to stay in touch, keep him posted, or apply for jobs in the lab, they will not know that they never had a chance. They will think that they weren’t as capable as their male colleagues.

    I apologise for the hijack. The psychological side ties into the actual discrimination, though, I think. If you cannot trust positive feedback you are surely bound to be more susceptible to subtle negative cues.

  24. Jolene,

    Thank you for sharing your experiences. Your comments are amongst the most useful things said thus far.

    Bracketing the bit that got the press, Dr Summers did claim that the most important factor “by far” in the under-representation of women in the high-end scientific professions was the “clash between people’s legitimate family desires and employers’ current desire for high power and high intensity.” He also acknowledged that “factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination” remain part of the general story. But he does not seem to have given this nearly enough weight – quite possibly because he failed to join up the dots between ‘family/employer clash’ and ‘discrimination’.

  25. Regan, thank you so much for the though provoking article and for interrogating Summers oversimplified examination of these social differences. One issue I find interesting is the way that ‘inherent’ differences are discussed differently in different circumstances, further evidence that supports your discussion of the role society plays in shaping behavior and in *our interpretation* of that behavior.

    In particular I am thinking of the recent evidence trend that boys are under-performing girls in school from elementary age through college. There has been significant discussion about how, on average, girls are performing better than boys. Yet there has not been even a single theory that has proposed that this is because boys are intellectually inferior! So when “there are more smarter men than there are smarter women” there is a suggestion that it is innate (i.e. men are genetically smarter), but when there are more girls who outperform boys every explanation other than innateness is employed (i.e. girls aren’t genetically smarter), including blaming feminism!? Something is certainly at odds here.

    That we as a society pick and choose when we use ‘innateness’ as an explanation of gender differences is, IMHO, a clear illustration that it is problematic at best and reflective of widespread structural -isms at worst! Culture and society shapes not only gender, but the logic we use to justify our social explanations.

  26. LEA.P,

    The literature is full of studies documenting the superior language skills of girls. The biological reasons for that are still being explored, but to suggest that there are innate competency differences between boys and girls with regard to language skills seems quite uncontroversial.

    Also, it doesn’t seem controversial, to say that statistically boys have an increased propensity for disruptive behavior,violence and criminality over girls and that this is partly down to biological factors – not only societal forces. This would seem to hint at one ‘innate’ reason why boys might be outperformed by girls in both elementary school and college before we even get to ‘intelligence’.

    And supposing, that on account of innate abilities, there are more boys at either end of the intelligence spectrum, you might well expect girls to outperform boys at elementary school. This is because at elementary school you don’t need to be at the very high-end of intelligence to get high marks – you just need not to be at the lower end and not have a propensity to misbehave.

  27. s. wallerstein


    However, we could also explain
    the fact that boys outperform girls as school progresses by the fact that with prepuberty girls
    become “feminine”, learn gender roles which involve being “sweet and sexy” instead of competing with boys.

  28. Amos,

    Girls continue to outperform boys in pretty much everything bar maths and the ‘hard’ sciences into college/university, long after they they learn gender roles.

    It is however possible some ‘learned’ gender roles benefit girls and young women at school and college but not at the graduate level – they don’t compete with boys at behaving badly.

  29. s. wallerstein

    It does seem that girls (and women) compete less and less with males as they grow older. Older women often become painfully submissive: I say “painfully” because often the same women at an earlier age showed some signs of kicking at the order of things.

    Anyway, as boys grow older, they learn that “winning” in real life depends more on getting good grades as a road to earning more money than on scoring goals in the schoolyard.

    That is, boys in graduate school are playing harder at school than they did at age 12, while girls in graduate school are playing less hard because they have become more fully socialized in their “femininity”.

    I don’t think that learning gender roles is like learning how to divide, something that one learns almost perfectly at a given moment: it’s a long long process, with moments of rebellion and of acceptance of one’s fate that takes years and years and in many, is never complete.

  30. One writer said, “It does seem that girls (and women) compete less and less with males as they grow older. Older women often become painfully submissive: I say “painfully” because often the same women at an earlier age showed some signs of kicking at the order of things.”

    It strikes me that if this is true, it is only because some women grow tired of putting up with the type of conversation that is demonstrated (by men) in these responses to Regan’s essay!!

    I doubt, for instance, that “girls in graduate school” think (or are!) playing “less hard because they have become more fully socialized in their ‘femininity’.” I know you are not saying that, if this is true, it is a good thing; but, you are ASSUMING this is true.

    Instead of assuming that girls in graduate school are “playing less hard” than boys – an arguable proposition, to say the least! – I suggest we look at ways to change your perception that this is ‘truth’. Why not go around and ask a bunch of female graduate students how much they work? I think the answers might surprise you.

    As a side note – and as a professional anthropologist – I think what gets lost in the innateness/culture issue is the following. Those of us who are more on the ‘culture’ side of the spectrum are NOT insisting that ‘everything is socially constructed’. Rather, it is important to understand that our disciplines and concepts are writ through with social values and perceptions of the world, and are not ‘in nature’. So, for instance, if one assumes that “male intelligence is less normally distributed” (as was suggested above), we assume that “normal distribution” refers to, say, a parabolic curve – but what is lost in all this is (1) the valuations implied in the word ‘normal’, which used in the sense as the writer above gives the appearance that women are somehow inferior intellectually (“in nature”), and (2) that such differences between men and women (what is represented by the parabolic curve) are documented well after social conditioning (e.g. sexism!) has already taken place! Therefore, the ‘normal distribution’ argument uses ‘social constructions’ and values masquerading as “science” to marshal a case that the differences between men and women are somehow ‘natural’. When in effect, reasoning this way is in fact sexism, because it is essentially used just to tell women to shut up.

  31. s. wallerstein

    Hello Jim:

    Girls or rather women (I think that you got the irony in my use of the word “girls”) play less hard as they get older: they often seem afraid to win, to beat males at their own game, since the game is basically male.

    By the way, I have never read social sciences. I am speaking from my own observations and from what I have conversed with others.
    What I say may seem “informal” or
    “subjective” to you.

    Males are generally more aggressive and more violent than females: that is the big difference, again from what I’ve seen.

    Women often seem to fear males. Competing with males may scare women, because they have learned from experience that if males do not get their way or win, they become violent. Obviously, not all or even the majority of males become physically violent if they do not get their way, but a few unfortunate experiences with violent or potentially violent males are often sufficient to make women wary about standing up to our sex.

    Bertand Russell says somewhere that the superiority of the male sex is based on superior muscle strength, on the ability to hit harder. I agree.

    In observing older females, I note resignation, resignation similar to that I observe in older members of the working class or in older blacks, the resignation of those who, literally or metaphorically, have been hit so many times, they no longer bother to answer.

  32. Who are you quoting, Jim? Who said “in nature”? Indeed — who, if anyone, are you addressing yourself to?

    Lots of people have used the word “innate” in this thread — but then, they’ve largely only used that word in order to say that the facts are mixed. The ‘valuations’ you attribute to statistical observation are absent, because most of the people you are talking to have not given any indication that they’ve made any of the assumptions that you say they have.

    (Emphasis on “most”. As far as I can tell, Stephen is the only person in this thread who has inferred anything like a strong innateness claim. And, indeed, by linking to the spurious and discredited pseudoscience of Western’s infamous Dr. Philippe Rushton, Stephen is vulnerable to all the critiques you have made so far.)

    You seem to take issue with Aaron’s interpretation of the SAT data. But you wrongly use the word “assume” to describe Aaron’s claims about the supposed unevenness of intelligence scores, treating Aaron as if he were just confabulating an opinion. That’s unfair, because he’s not — he’s pointing to evidence. And as far as the statistics are concerned, Aaron has interpreted the evidence in an unimpeachable way. As the excellent feminist philosopher Carla Fehr observed, the SAT scores only tell us that, at best, “there are more men than women at the extreme tails of the distribution.” (In the words of the author of that article: “In other words, men tend to be smarter, yet also stupider than women”, which is an echo of Aaron’s remark.)

    Still, of course, there is ample reason to criticize the Summerian explanation of that evidence. As Fehr argues in the link above, the SAT data does not support any innateness thesis; you repeat some of those reasons here. (And here’s one more reason: women engineers score much higher on the SATs than their male counterparts. “Innateness” indeed.) But even so, it would be more suitable, I think, that you direct your critique to the actual abuse of that data (e.g., Stephen), instead of attributing abuse of the data to anyone who mentions the evidence and clarifies how we have to make sense of it (e.g., Aaron).

  33. Benjamin,

    I appreciate you coming to my defense twice now but it was quite unnecessary as I was not actually making a real argument or referencing any data whatsoever. I study Economics, with some Philosophy of Mind and a little Ethics. However, I do not understand Evolutionary or Development or any other kind of Psychology well enough to comment on the nature of intelligence, let alone its causes. Nor am I familiar with gendered intelligence statistics well enough to comment on them.

    I am familiar enough with Dr. Summers, I know the man and have personally spoken to him about his remarks, to comment on his remarks. I believe they were being mis-characterized in a way that was, despite being incorrect as I understand them, quite popular nonetheless and was attempting to provide clarity on the issue.

    If there was any normativity in my earlier comments, I apologize, there should not have been. If you wish to discuss the substance of Dr. Summers arguments, talk to Dr. Summers or in his absence, someone who understands the data well enough to substantively agree with them. As I am neither of these people, however, please stop reading more into my earlier comments than just an attempt to provide clarity and translate economist into philosopher.

  34. Aaron, true, I think it’s pretty clear that your remarks were meant to be an explanation and not an argument. But I didn’t mean to attribute any substantive opinion to you — that is, I didn’t mean to suggest that you had anything to say in favor of the innateness hypothesis. (Indeed, few people here do.)

    You do, however, venture an opinion about the data, as Summers understands it. And my reference to you ‘interpreting the evidence’ is meant to be a short-form for you ‘explaining Summers’s explanation of the SAT data’. That truncation was necessary in order to quickly get to the point I wanted to make about the statistical meaning of “normal”, which was being conflated with a very different sense of the word.

    But I admit that my comment was elliptical, and I’m sorry if it seemed that I passed off Summers’ views as your own. Hopefully I’ve now set the record straight.

  35. Benjamin wrote:
    “by linking to the spurious and discredited pseudoscience of Western’s infamous Dr. Philippe Rushton, Stephen is vulnerable to all the critiques you have made so far.”

    This is interesting. I wonder who has discredited Rushton’s work or shown it to be “spurious”. On the face of it, Rushton’s article makes factual and falsifiable claims backed up with reference to studies of empirical data and evaluations of contrary hypotheses. It has explanatory potential, alongside environmental explanations. In what sense then is it “pseudoscience”, rather than science tentatively telling us what we may not want to hear?

    Is there any concrete evidence that it is something other than a contribution to an ongoing scientific debate? Where can we read it?

  36. Hi All,
    I can go some way in answering my question above on Rushton:
    Obviously, the sources are of questionable authority, but interesting nonetheless. Obviously this is not related to gender, but only to the question of ‘innateness’ or heritability in general

  37. Stephen, those links ought to give you a taste, yes. But the essential problem is just that, in science, you can’t infer something about genetics just by looking at population statistics. One might as well read tea leaves and call it science.

    Moreover, when constructing your account, you can’t appeal to psychological mechanisms that are already unlikely. e.g., it is pretty controversial to believe that intelligence is a general-purpose learning mechanism that we can measure using standard tools.

  38. The replacement of physical by social anthropology in the empirical study of the human mind appears to have been one of the important stories of the last century. I have heard reasonable doubts raised about whether this was wholly the result of scientific considerations, given the political and academic agendas also apparently at work (e.g. the “long march through the institutions” of the 1960s Left).

  39. Hello, have just read this article and some [not all] of the comments, and you might find this a whimsical response, but I’ll make it anyway.
    You don’t need to be a professional philosopher [or anthropologist/sociologist] to recognise that terms like innate and intelligent are highly contestable [maybe these have technical definitions that researchers are generally agreed upon, but I doubt it. As to differences in intelligence between genders, imagine if some researcher came out with the news that, after intensive research based on clear parameters, it had been found that female tigers [or chimps, or elephants] were innately more [or less] intelligent than males? My guess is that they wouldn’t be taken seriously for a minute – or rather , no serious researcher would make that claim, they would instead find different explanations for the differences they found between the genders, such as the different roles they have within the group or the pairing – child-rearing, hunting, being territorial, spreading sperm, etc.
    I’m sure there’s a lesson there for us – we’re evolving rapidly in a social sense, but it may be that our brains [if we can find any gender differences there] are still geared towards earlier gender roles… or is evolutionary psychology verboten here?
    Actually this also makes me think of chimps and bonobos. Among the far less aggressive bonobos, the females have the upper hand, in spite of being disfavoured by sexual dimorphism. How? By sticking together and ganging up on the guys. There’s your answer. It’s not about who’s smarter, it’s about who’s the boss. Once you’re the boss, you get to define who the smartest ones are!

  40. It seems to me like I was being unduly deferential earlier on. My view (I am not claiming infallibility, but I think I’m entitled to an opinion) is that Rushton and Jensen’s article is properly scientific in the normal sense of the term that one learns at school and college. His invoking Lakatos supports this view. It is at least clearly intended as a contribution to a scientific debate. The objections raised by some later comments (e.g. the contestable nature of “general intelligence” as an explanatory category) are ones that they clearly takes cognisance of in the article I linked to and hence do not stand on their own. Further, the means by which Rushton and Jensens’s work is “discredited” as science are not themselves scientific, but typically consist of such devices as raising irrelevant objections, ostracism and vilification, as illustrated in the other link I gave and some other of the comments above.

    Obviously, this does not concern gender difference as such, but only the more general point about heritability that was raised in passing in Rega Penaluna’s original article.

  41. I assume you’re looking at Section Two of the paper linked above.

    Agreed: Lakatos is a decent guide. So I am puzzled to find that the author decided to trace their theory of the “g factor” back to early-twentieth century “hereditarians”, as if the two things were inexorably intertwined parts of a single program. This is both sloppy and unnecessary for a hereditarian. The fact is, the g-factor/modularity debate cuts across the hereditarian/environmentalist debate. One may be a “hereditarian”, in the underwhelming (“50/50”) sense upheld by the authors, while also making claims about modules of the mind. For instance, both Summers and Pinker base at least some of their claims about sex differences on some kind of modularity assumption (for instance, about purported differences in visual representation).

    In other words, there is no indication that you are on target when you claim that “The objections raised by some later comments (e.g. the contestable nature of “general intelligence” as an explanatory category) are ones that they clearly takes cognisance of in the article” [sic]. Quite the opposite, the debate seems to be as far from the authors’ minds could possibly be. And I struggle to think of any ways in which a paradigm could be deemed “progressive” in Lakatos’s sense while completely ignoring 70 years of psychology. A gigantic red flag is raised when we see that there is no mention here of modularity theses of the mind, nor any substantive remarks about them.

    Now, back to my claims. I said that the data was spurious, the programme discredited, and the science was pseudo.

    We’ve already seen some red flags. But the crimson flags glow neon red once you realize that this history of the literature linked above makes no mention of the methodological problems of the canonical studies. e.g., the author has decided that the antiques produced by Paul Broca 140 years ago ought best be laid out like the best Sunday china. That’s a problem. As Fehr summarizes:

    “When Paul Broca… set about studying sex differences in intelligence, he measured differences in the weight of brains of men and women collected in autopsies from four Parisian hospitals. His perhaps unsurprising conclusion was that men’s brains weighed more than women’s and that therefore men were more intelligent than women… What was surprising was that despite having rescued Frenchmen from a claim of German superiority by adjusting for such factors as size and age, Broca made no such adjustments in measuring women’s brains.”

    (Fehr is a philosopher, but she is citing the near-legendary SJ Gould. That’s where one can find content to the claim that the author’s claims have been discredited. Though it’s not hard to find other names through a quick search of Google Scholar. David Suzuki, for instance.)

    When you’re doing a serious history of a science, it is not enough to cite the studies. One must also point out the flaws of the studies, and show that those flaws have been corrected by subsequent work. That way, we can tell whether or not we’re being sold spurious data. This matters in the present case, because the brain weight study cited immediately after Broca (Ho et al, 1980) evidently corrects for body size, but no mention is made of whether or not it corrects for age. And for their part, the authors don’t seem to think that this deficit is the sort of thing that is worth pointing out.

    But is it pseudoscience? On reflection, I’m willing to admit that whether or not it counts as pseudoscience is a matter of interpretation. If we’re going by Lakatos, then I might be tempted to say that the author’s work is pseudoscience, so long as it can be shown that it is not even a degenerative research program. And research program is not even degenerative just in case it is not even accommodating the evidence. I don’t have enough expertise to make that claim, and so I’ll retract it.

    I’m sure I could say more about this, so long as I have a conversation partner who is responsive to research evidence. But I’m not sure the effort will be worth it, so long as Stephen thinks that anything said above counts as “raising irrelevant objections, ostracism and vilification”. I have said that I do mean to suggest that the authors are doing poor science: spurious data, an explanation that has been discredited. I think I have pretty good reasons for saying these two things. I don’t think that this is “raising irrelevant objections” or “vilification”. But make no mistake, I certainly do mean to rationally invalidate his work, and in that sense I am inevitably ostracizing him insofar as he is connected to that work; but then again, whenever one is speaking to controversial subjects, there is an accompanied risk of ostracizing oneself from others.

  42. Dear Stephen

    Rushton’s links to ‘American Renaissance’, which promotes ‘voluntary segregation’, and his speaking at their conferences with the likes of the British National Party’s Nick Griffin etc etc does *not* prove his paper with Jensen is not ‘properly scientific’. Even if both were proved to be racists this does *not* mean their findings are wrong.

    ‘HEREDITY, ENVIRONMENT, AND RACE DIFFERENCES IN IQ: A Commentary on Rushton and Jensen’ (2005) Richard E. Nisbett, Theodore M. Newcomb Distinguished Professor of social psychology at the University of Michigan, does seems a ‘properly scientific’ paper too. I make no claims for it other than that. The fact it is published by a reputable academic, an elected member to the National Academy of Sciences, only gives grounds to consider its author’s claims. I’ll provide a link below but Nisbett, the Theodore M. Newcomb Distinguished Professor of social psychology at the University of Michigan, opens as follows:

    “J. P. Rushton and A. R. Jensen (2005) ignore or misinterpret most of the evidence of greatest relevance to the question of heritability of the Black–White IQ gap. A dispassionate reading of the evidence on the association of IQ with degree of European ancestry for members of Black populations, convergence of Black and White IQ in recent years, alterability of Black IQ by intervention programs, and adoption studies lend no support to a hereditarian interpretation of the Black–White IQ gap. On the contrary, the evidence most relevant to the question indicates that the genetic contribution to the Black–White IQ gap is nil.” The article “is characterized by failure to cite, in any but the most cursory way, strong evidence against their position. Their lengthy presentation of indirectly relevant evidence which, in light of the direct evidence against the hereditarian view they prefer, has little probative value, and their “scorecard” tallies of evidence on various points cannot be sustained by the evidence”.

    As stated I only wish to draw your attention to an alternative viewpoint.

  43. Nisbett’s paper can be found here:

    For those that just want the conclusion:

    “In short, Rushton and Jensen (2005) ride roughshod over the evidence concerning the question of whether the Black–White IQ gap has a hereditary basis. The most directly relevant research concerns degree of European ancestry in the Black population. There is not a shred of evidence in this literature, which draws on studies having a total of five very different designs, that the gap has a genetic basis. Adoption studies give scarcely more support to the heritability position. Finally, Black and White IQ scores have converged in recent decades, and in addition, we know that intervention programs can produce substantial and lasting effects on Black IQ. The most obvious policy relevance of this set of findings is that at-risk children—those born to impoverished women, especially those likely to be unable to provide a stimulating environment, and in particular children who have low birth weight or other factors predisposing to low IQ — should be exposed to the most extensive intervention programs that it is practical to provide. This group happens to include a disproportionate percentage of Black infants, but race need not, and perhaps should not, be made a criterion for inclusion.”

  44. Benjamin,
    Thanks for referring me google scholar. It’s obviously a goldmine of relevant reading and I’ll try and digest some of that rather than commenting further from my current knowledge base.

    Thanks also for the references. These discussions are nothing if not educational.

  45. This reference is interesting on an example of SJ Gould’s scholarship:

  46. Moronomics « The Burning Platform - pingback on June 6, 2012 at 8:05 am

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