John Allen Paulos on the Larry Summers Controversy

In his monthly column at ABC News, John Allen Paulos sheds light on Harvard University president Larry Summers’s remarks about the possibility of innate differences between men and women accounting for the under-representation of women in the mathematical sciences in the academy:

Bigjap …on the math SATs, the average boy’s score is slightly higher than the average girl’s score, but, perhaps more significantly, the variability of boys’ scores is greater than that of girls’ scores…

To appreciate the role of variability, we can imagine 1,000 women taking a math achievement test. Absurdly exaggerating for the sake of clarity, let’s stipulate that 200 of them score around 75 on it, 600 of them score around 100, and 200 of them score around 125. In contrast, we can imagine 1,000 men taking the test, but now we stipulate that 200 of them score around 25 on it, 600 of them score around 100, and 200 of them score around 175.

Both groups’ scores would average 100, but there is no doubt that the men would be disproportionately represented in institutions of higher learning as well as in institutions of other sorts.

…Summers’ remarks (or, rather, crude versions of them) caused an indignant uproar. But there are many biological differences between the sexes, and there is no reason why these should not extend to matters mathematical. In addition to the SAT and other test data, well-known studies have shown that across cultures and on average men do better in navigating through three-dimensional space and visualizing objects therein.

Other studies suggest that women are better at quick calculation and subitization, telling at a glance how many objects are lying about. Calling for the issue to be studied further does not make one a benighted sexist, and Summers, although he probably should have realized how his remarks would be taken, is certainly nothing of the sort.

Read the column here.