Summers Is A-Coming In, Loudly Sing “Cuckoo!”

Harvard President Larry Summers has apologized for his cuckoo suggestion that the absence of women in the higher echelons of science and math might be due to women’s “intrinsic” weakness. But why President Summers resorted to speculation in the first place remains as incomprehensible to me as, well, math. There are — to paraphrase romance novelist Barbara Cortlandt — an “innumerable number” of reasons, right under his very nose. Here are just a few:

  1. Women are judged by their looks, both by prospective spouses and prospective employers, which is why nine out of ten women are on a diet at any given time. This means keeping a running tally in their heads of the number of calories they consumed that day, dividing the overage by x to determine how many calories they must subtract from their diet and over how many days (y) to achieve the weight loss necessary to fit into the red dress they bought two (2) sizes too small. Who has time for calculus?
  2. Little girls are too good at math. It’s their precocious grasp of math that leads them to realize when reading “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” that
    1. there are only two kinds of men in the world, dwarves and Prince Charmings; and
    2. the odds of them finding the Prince are seven to one.

    That’s why little girls don’t do math; it’s too depressing.

  3. Even if little girls do soldier on, K-12 math problems show an unconscious bias towards boys, who, for reasons best known to Freud, are fascinated by trains rushing towards one another at variant speeds. Why not pose problems that might interest girls? Read Ivana Trump’s explanation of how she buys bras:“I go to Bloomingdale’s, to the 9th floor, and I buy 2000 of the white, 2000 of the beige, 2000 of the black…Then six months later, I go back and do it all over again.”Now multiply 6000 by two, divide by 365 and multiply again by two to solve for: How many breasts does Ivana Trump have?Little girls solving problems like these might grow up to be economists, solving even more important questions, like “Is it possible to have too much money?”

And speaking of economics, President Summers might have also turned for an answer to why women are absent in the higher echelons of science to the things women are good at, like, well…

  1. Economics. Okay, maybe not Rational Choice, a school of economics which is rigorously mathematical (i.e. which excludes any reality that doesn’t conform to its mathematical models), but Behavioral Economics, which looks at how people actually behave. While Rationalists got caught up in the irrational exuberance of the 90’s bubble, women looked at how the A-list traders spent their nights — stuffing C-notes into the G-strings of exotic dancers — and decided to invest in real estate. They don’t need to teach.
  2. Women are good at history. They remember the “science” of Phrenology, in which measurements of the skull “explained” the inferiority of non-Caucasian peoples. They remember the words of that eminent Victorian Matthew Arnold “explaining” that the thicker lips of people of African descent made it impossible for them to pronounce Latin correctly and therefore to teach Latin. They are therefore suspicious of any science which is more narrative than fact, particularly when the narrative serves to justify discrimination or at least to make discrimination moot, like the psycho(evolutionary)babble that led President Summers to pose his ill-considered question. Because finally, women are good at…
  3. Logic. Taking the logic of evolutionary psychology to its own extreme, the evolutionary advantage of evolutionary psychology is to tell a story that pleases the people in power, to wit, a story that reinforces the prejudices and paradigms that keep them in power.

Come to think of it, that could answer the question I started out with, why President Summers resorted to speculation in the first place.

Or is that too cuckoo?

KC Cole responds to “Summers Is A-Coming In, Loudly Sing “Cuckoo!””

If I could bring myself to call Emily Levine Sober as a Judge, I would. But she’s just too funny. I’ll give her a “slightly skewed” only because I consider it a compliment. (Who wants to be sober as a judge?)

As for crackpots, Summers, alas, doesn’t even qualify. (As the physicist Wolfgang Pauli once said to an eager student who asked the great man if he thought the student’s theory was wrong: “It’s not even wrong.”)

Summers is not even close to wrong. And Emily nails the “why” in her first paragraph.

Sure, there are differences between male and female brains. It’s even remotely possible that such a difference could in some way have an effect on their performance in school-based evaluations of their scientific abilities. For example, some studies suggest that women use more parts of their brains when pondering certain kinds of problems. It’s possible that this could hurt them on, say, timed math tests. This is the penalty for being thoughtful. But timed tests don’t measure anything beyond ability to answer test questions quickly—which has no value whatsoever in practice. Many physicists (the father of quantum mechanics, Niels Bohr, for example) was famously “slow.”

But so what? Even if there are differences, they don’t rise to above the level of noise compared to all the obvious and well documented reasons—ranging from low expectations and patronizing of girls by parents and teachers to centuries of discrimination.

Summers looks at the absence of women in the higher echelons of science and concludes that women aren’t wired right to succeed. By the same logic (to borrow an example from the mathematician John Allen Paulos) he could look at studies showing that children with larger shoe sizes do better than children with small shoe sizes and conclude that foot development has something to do with mathematical ability. But the obvious reason children with bigger feet do better is because they’re older! He could study the correlation between shoe size and test scores till the cows come home and never learn anything worth knowing.

Why doesn’t Summers understand that correlation doesn’t equal cause? Perhaps he needs some remedial math.

K.C. Cole is the author of Mind Over Matter: Conversations with the Cosmos and The Universe and the Teacup: The Mathematics of Truth and Beauty.

Ellen DuBois responds to “Summers Is A-Coming In, Loudly Sing “Cuckoo!””

Everything that Emily Levine writes is just cuckoo enough to be true.  I’m surprised she left out the old joke used to explain women’s sudden loss of skill at math.  It’s hard to do it without gestures, but here goes.  Why are women bad at math?  Because they are told that “this big” [set two index fingers at about four inches apart] is really “that big” [widen gap between fingers to eight inches].  Joking aside, what I find even more troublesome than President Summers’ retro theory that essential biological differences “explain” the differential performances of males and females in science and math [when, as an economist, he should realize that theories of social expectation and social prejudice are much more “economical” explanations, which require a far less grandiose theory to explain empirical differences in contemporary performance]  is those who defend Sommers on the grounds that the role of the university is to open up dialogue not constrain it.  But we don’t debate everything endlessly.  We don’t debate whether the earth is flat anymore and it would not be a good career move for an aspiring university president to ruminate on that possibility in public.  Well, I guess the analogy isn’t quite perfect.  Settling this question about the biological versus social character of differential performance in modern education seems to be a more stubborn superstition than the cosmological theories than Galileo faced, and will take a longer time to retire.

Ellen DuBois is a professor of History at UCLA and a great admirer of all attempts at comedic philosophy and philosophical comedy.  Most recently she is the coauthor, along with Lynn Dumenil, of a wonderful new overview of American history from the perspective of women:  Through Women’s Eyes: An American History with Documents (Bedford St. Martins).   One reader (the author’s therapist) described it as beautiful and highly user friendly.  Makes a wonderful present for friends and family.

Jonathan Rowe responds to “Summers Is A-Coming In, Loudly Sing “Cuckoo!””

Let me be serious for a moment. It is not entirely whacko, or cuckoo, to suggest, for the sake of discussion, that there are innate differences between men and women, and that these differences might play a role in the fields both pursue. For example, men are more likely than women to be bald, and this limits somewhat their opportunities in the “supermodel” field.

I tend to doubt that such differences play a large role in regards to science, however. I know of no peer-reveiwed studies that correlate baldness with proficiency in science. This is despite an extensive literature in the field. There are studies that correlate baldness with the first name “Sheldon” for example. That men with the first name “Sol” are more likely to write for Left wing journals than to work in sanitation, also is fairly well established. It is true that these journals generally have more men than women on their mastheads. However, preliminary research suggests that this is because Sols, unlike Sheldons, tend not to be bald. Or if they are, they are less likely to employ embarrassing comb-overs.

The case of Irvings is especially instructive. The name Irving has a definite connection to career path and even political proclivity. There have been Irvings who embraced reactionary politics just for revenge. At the same time, there are no known cases of Latin American revolutionaries by the name of Irving. Thirty years ago, if all the Irvings in the U.S. had been renamed Lance or Seth, the politics of this nation might be markedly different today. I know of no female equivalent of this phenomenon, except possibly Gertrudes. This requires further study.

Seriousness aside. One day, in my freshman year at Mr. Summers esteemed university, I sat in what was then the Alston Burr Lecture Hall. The course was Nat Sci 5, which was supposed to be biology for humanists, but which, in the careerist course of things at that esteemed university, had turned into a sort of warm-up for the pre-med grind. The topic this day was photosynthesis, and the professor was a brilliant young man by the unlikely name of — if I remember correctly– Johns Hopkins. Maybe it was John, but somehow Johns stuck in my mind

Johns was vaguely British, tall and angular, with straight blond hair that glistened under the spotlights. He spent the entire hour writing biochemical reactions on the chalkboards. As each filled up, he slid it up with a kind of swooping gesture and went to work on another. We all hunched over, copying this important information in our notebooks. Why this was necessary I did not know, but who was I to question? This was an esteemed university.

When finally he was finished, there was this sense of exhaustion. I’m sure I’m not the only one whose fingers ached. Then a hand went up in the front of the class. It was a young lady from Radcliffe, small and obviously a bit shy. “Excuse me,” she said. “Where is all this going on?” The question was not sarcastic. She genuinely was bewildered, as were the rest of us, though we didn’t have the presence or courage to admit it.

That Cliffie is a hero to this day. I have thought much about what happened that day — my silence, her courage, and the brilliant Mr. Hopkins, so submerged in plant chemistry that he forgot about the plant and the world of which the plant was a part, let alone the people he was talking to. I have reflected on, among other things, how places such as Harvard breed this kind of person — a kind I think of as a brilliant ignoramus.

These people are facile and penetrating within the confines of their specialties — in particular the sciences and economics, which pretends to be a science but really isn’t. They know everything and more, and are not shy about it either. But they can be clueless and even dense outside of their specialties. They often have a singular incapacity to reflect on the larger questions that those fields cannot address. The biotech whizzes want to give us pills. Economists such as Summers want to give us “growth”. Each views us as mechanisms dependent upon their expert ministrations. They are people with hammers who see the world as full of nails.

The brilliant ignoramus tends not to to show much curiosity about the human condition, or to have much rapport with the problems of the heart. They relate better to their mechanical models of people than they do to actual people. It is not coincidental I think that Lawrence Summers has embraced biotech as the emblem of Harvard’s future. To an economist we are all just preference curves. Our inner lives consist of cost-benefit calculations. If something is wrong we go to a brilliant doctor to fix us. What more is there to know?

Maybe, just maybe, part of the answer to Summers’ question lies here. Why aren’t there more women in the sciences, at Harvard and elsewhere? Maybe, among other things, they know myopia and high-class ignorance when they see it, and choose something else.

Jonathan Rowe is the director of the Tomales Bay Institute in Point Reyes Station California. He is not and never has been an economist, though he does read a magazine by that name on occasion. He generally is not funny except when he’s not trying to be. His website is

Drawings by Sonic.

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