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Thursday, February 10, 2005

Larry Summers Pt. 2

I ended up responding to comments in my earlier post in what became a really rather lengthy way. So I elected to post the response here:

Playing devil's advocate... why should any of this matter? If people are disuaded from persuing mathematics as a profession becuase they feel there's some social stigma preventing it, it seems like there's only really an overriding need for society to create a remedy (via government or not) if there's some greater issue at hand. With mathematics, I just don't see it. Great - there are fewer women mathematicians. Who cares? With politics, even if men/whites/whatever are more able when it comes to much of leadership, the fact that they are meaningfully less likely to fully appreciate issues that do not pertain to them (see: abortion, manditory minnimums) whereas with math...

If the argument is (and I assume it must be in some form) that the field of math is worse off for having cordoned off a viable set of future Newtonettes... again, this seems self-correcting to a large degere. The same problem exists with the perception of merit in colleges. A student graduating from Harvard of MIT with a math degree has an astronomically greater chance of being accepted to top graduate schools and so going on to top professional posts than someone coming from the University of North Dakota, even though on an individual level, one coming from the latter might be exceedingly talented as compared to the others. Largely this latter stigmatization is accepted due to common perceptions about what comprises "merit." If the president of Harvard had said, for example, that it's possible there are inherant differences between the pool of individuals going to Nowhere State and Caltech, most people would pause, and say, "Yea, most of the former are less intelligent." Yet despite the same principle coming into play with regards to sex, it's considered an aberration.

The fact that at 21 a person might be less able because of their education is just something people accept as a fact of life, wheras at 18, for some reason, it's something that begs remedial action. Many arguments on this issue have been made towards the direction of "becuase the cliche has women bad at math, girls a the elementary and middle school level are less likely to persue math or 'hard' sciecnes." This is my other problem. It seems to be that the deemphasis of mathematics as a curriculum for all students has made it less likely that merit in individuals can be spotted at the vital stages where it can be cultivated. My personal belief is that everyone graduating from high school should have, at least, integral and differential calculus. The degradation across the board of America's math test scores seems to follow the path of: well, since they can't pass the harder curriculum, we'll make it easier. And then there exists a corresponding dip in test scores. It's like walking a dog and refusing to use the leash to direct the animal, instead following it wherever it elects to lead.

Bringing us back to Summers' comments: does the fact that it seems as if, empirically, fewer women have a high aptitude at math at the end of high school indicate intrinsic differences at the genetic level, or a social pressure? Without further study, it seems like we'll never find out. You can study the social pressures all you want, but the best one can hope for there is some indication that social pressures have some effect. Without doing the type of research Summers' calls for, a cogent explanation will never be in place. And if it turns out that there is no intrinsic difference - well, all the more motivation to fix the social end of things. But in the mean time, the more real questions of socioeconomic disadvantage and so on seem more pressing than whether or not more skirts appear at the AMA's annual get together.

cranked out at 3:14 PM | |

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