October 12, 2008 / Uncategorized

Larry Summers: 3 Strikes, You’re OUT!



It’s time we finally and permanently put Larry Summers out to pasture.

Many of you will remember Larry Summers. He is the sexist former President of Harvard University who infamously said: “There are issues of intrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude, and that those considerations are reinforced by what are in fact lesser factors involving socialization and continuing discrimination.” In other words, according to Larry, boys are better than girls at math – they’re just born that way. Shortly after this asinine comment, Larry was summarily dismissed (e.g. FIRED) from Harvard.

Well Larry, turns out not only was your comment grounds for dismissal, you were just plain wrong!

Yesterday, The Boston Globe published this story: “Study finds culture a factor in female math achievement: Nurturing climate produces more elite competitors.” The study referred to in the article will be published in next month’s Notices of the American Mathematical Society. It concludes that cultural or environmental factors, not intellect, are what really limit women’s math achievements.

Unlike other research on gender and math ability, which relied on tests such as the SAT or state assessments to gather data, this study used a survey of the world’s elite mathematicians to demonstrate that women with extreme math ability exist—although recognition varies by country.

Since 1974, tiny Bulgaria has had nine female competitors in the elite International Mathematical Olympiad. East Germany/Germany has had 10, and the USSR/Russia, 13. Over that same time, the United States has had three.

Dr. Nancy Hopkins, a co-founder of The New Agenda, was one of the first academics to speak out against Larry four years ago:

Nancy Hopkins, a biology professor at MIT who was an outspoken critic of Summers, said the new research shows that “this expectation that girls can’t do math has real consequences.”

But Larry’s week did not stop there. Oh no. Turns out that Larry is also partly to blame for the financial woes that our country finds itself in.

The New York Times reported this week that back in 1998, Chairwoman of the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Brooksley E. Born, warned Alan Greenspan, Robert Rubin and Larry Summers of the risks inherent in not regulating derivatives. The unregulated derivatives market ultimately would a big part of the unraveling of the U.S. economy.

Ms. Born was President of the Stanford Law, and in 1977, was the first woman appointed to the ABA’s Standing Committee on Federal Judiciary, which evaluates potential federal judges, and in 1980 she was elevated to chair of that committee.

But why would Larry Summers listen to her? She’s a woman.

In “The Woman Greenspan, Rubin & Summers Silenced”, The Nation reports that they didn’t merely ignore Brooksley Burn:

Instead of heeding this oracle’s warnings, Greenspan, Rubin & Summers rushed to silence her. As the Times story reveals, Born’s wise warnings “incited fierce opposition” from Greenspan and Rubin who “concluded that merely discussing new rules threatened the derivatives market.” Greenspan deployed condescension and told Born she didn’t know what she doing and she’d cause a financial crisis. (A senior Commission director who worked with Born suggests that Greenspan and the guys didn’t like her independence. “Brooksley was this woman who was not playing tennis with these guys and not having lunch with these guys. There was a little bit of the feeling that this woman was not of Wall Street.”)

Larry even called her on the telephone to castigate her:

In early 1998, Mr. Rubin’s deputy, Lawrence H. Summers, called Ms. Born and chastised her for taking steps he said would lead to a financial crisis, according to Mr. Greenberger. Mr. Summers said he could not recall the conversation but agreed with Mr. Greenspan and Mr. Rubin that Ms. Born’s proposal was “highly problematic.”

A decade later, we all get to pay for Greenspan, Rubin and Summers’ arrogance.

And while the unregulated derivatives market was sowing the seeds of our economic destruction, Larry was busy with World Bank, making plans to export pollution to less developed countries. Yes, you read that correctly:

In December 1991, while at the World Bank, Summers signed a memo written by staff economist Lant Pritchett which argued among other things (according to its author; the full memo is not public) that free trade would not necessarily benefit the environment in developing countries. Pritchett also drafted what he referred to as an ironic aside to the memo which Summers also signed. The aside was leaked to the press and stated that, developed countries ought to export more pollution to developing countries because these countries would incur the lowest cost from the pollution in terms of lost wages of people made ill or killed by the pollution due to the fact that wages are so low in developing countries. The aside went on to state that “the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that” [source]. Public outcry ensued when the aside was leaked.

Larry Summers: You have failed miserably. Do the country a favor and go play some golf.


Alas, Larry’s not playing golf. He, along with Robert Rubin, is an advisor to Barack Obama:

Barack Obama was in “governing mode,” says one of his aides. In a small room next to A basketball arena at the University of Miami, Fla., the Democratic nominee had convened an emergency session of his new economic brain trust. It was a remarkable gathering for a candidate who, during the primaries, had relied largely on an obscure, baby-faced University of Chicago economist named Austan Goolsbee. With Obama in the room were Bob Rubin and Larry Summers.

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  • Dawn C

    Everyone’s an idiot, sometimes, right? I don’t mean Larry Summers, who, as an example to other high-profile misogynists, ought to be banished to the Outer Darkness. No, I mean Barack Obama, the idiot who calls women “sweetie” (because infantilizing terms of endearment are just what we women want to hear from our candidate) and “young lady” (because being an old woman is double-plus ungood), and who thought maybe John Roberts wasn’t such a bad choice for SCOTUS.

    Everyone’s an idiot sometimes, but when the idiocy goes on and on, when you don’t notice and/or don’t speak up, well, it’s tantamount to sitting around the office lunchroom listening to your officemates talk about niggers and wetbacks, and not saying a word, or not thinking there’s a problem with that.

  • Kiuku

    Score another for Team Sexist.

  • votermom

    Somehow I am not surprised. We call them sexist, Obama calls them his core team.

  • Kiuku

    Yea now all they need to do is bring Baumeister on board and they’ll be set.

  • Msakel

    Why, what makes you think Barry Obama is a camouflaged misogynist?

    His “periodically, Hillary feels down and starts launching attacks to boost her appeal”? or

    “The claws are coming out”? or
    “She’s likeable enough”? or

    “Obama Gives HIllary the Finger” – BHO’s wonderfully talented JayC rapper-wannabe performance in N.C. day after his pathetically inept Pa.ABC Debate? In this act, he smirked, waited for audience to applaud while ‘flip-offing’ ,with his dainty midfinger scratching his face, his fellow female Senator Clinton.

    Surely, you don’t think humble-boy Obama will be anything but the staunchest supporter of women’s rights once this anorexic resume attains the top job! Zeus help us….

  • Christine

    I remember loving math as a child and I wanted to learn as much as I could, but I still have some lingering negative feelings due to my teacher’s preference for helping the boys in class.

    When I was in elementary and junior high school, the teacher would never help me because she was too busy helping the boys in class. I did well, but I hated math for years until I went to college and had great professors.

  • OrlandoNan

    Larry Summers has a long history of sexism and seems proud of it. He and Rubin and Greenspan denigrated Born’s warning and went out of their way to imply she was unqualified to make an assessment and out of the loop. It was “boyz klub” time big-time. I doubt she is happy she is right but it does vindicate her.
    NoBama has quickly moved to install a full-press Clinton restoration, minus Hillary. After spending 18+ months vigorously trashing “old ways, old ideas and old mindsets” he immediately pivoted and grasped every bit of the “old way” expertise he could. He meant Hillary was “old” not the good ideas she had a part in.
    So, when she cited the success of the 90s it was dwelling on the past and old ways. When it has his brand on it it is leadership and steady embrace of established ideals.
    I am holding the line here in Florida. The rest of the nation may have drunk the Kool-Aid but I won’t vote for him and early voting starts today. NoBama! Pumas outraged by our primary vote heist will deny NoBama Florida, just watch.

  • Juliette

    Larry Summers seems like Obama’s kind of guy. Mark my word. An Obama administration-cabinet will be a mens only club.

  • We all worried about the Obama’s men’s club from the very beginning. Even though Michelle has been the bread winner in his marrige and his Grandmother financially supported his middle class upbringing, even if she gave herself less, I do not ever see women highly placed around him . Barry Obama has followed the tradional path from the “hood” where men hang around and the women work, then when the men make their move, there is no respect for women’s talent???
    As Founder of the Peacemaker Corps whose work was primarily in the inner cities of America I saw this dismissive behavior towards women time and again. His inner circle of advisors seem to view the world very similarly. Good luck to all the taleted and learned women of the country, I hope we get some of our word into how this administration will govern, but I really doubt it. I will be very happy if I am wrong.

  • biteoftheweek

    I loved math also, and was good at it. In 10th grade I was encouraged not to take any more math classes in high school, and when I went to college I found myself woefully behind having not spoken the language of math for 3 years.

    I have a niece who spent the last 3 years studying in England. She is going to College with my children. Her major? Engineering.

  • rabbit

    This is a ridiculous overreaction to Summers. He is not, as you would suggest, the devil incarnate.

    He made a speech where he wondered if there were a biological basis for differences in aptitude for mathematics.

    That’s it. That’s all he said. Provided it’s approached honestly, it’s a perfectly legitimate question to ask. Indeed many feminists of good standing haven’t just wondered but asserted that men and women think differently.

    In regards to Burns, it is actually possible for a man to disagree with a women and not have it based on misogyny. Of course, that possibility is not considered for a second here.

    This ridiculous and strident article has completely lost touch with reality.

  • Christian Lux

    Since I don´t see the comment I did a few days back published here I now write it again in case there was a glitch when I submitted it.

    The study Amy Siskind refers to is a study by Gallian, Kane and Mertz about country and gender participation and results at the international mathematical olympiads. This study does not at all put at variance Larry Summers´view that the mathematics gender gap at top levels may well be biological. In effect according to the referred study even in the countries which most favor female participation at the mathematical olympiads (like Russia or Bulgaria) there are only 12% to 24% females, which means that males still make up 76% to 84% of exceptionally talented young mathematicians.

    The reason why there is such an overwhelming male representation in fields like top level mathematics, theoretical physics or astrophysics is actually very simple. It can be explained by the the fact that you need a IQ of at least 3 or 4 standard deviations above the mean of 100 (in other words a IQ of at least 150 or 160) to master the most advanced topics in these disciplines. Now there are numerous studies showing that the standard deviation of males IQ is significantly larger than the standard deviation of females IQ. If you add the fact that the IQ distribution is approximately normal (or gaussian) then you have a very simple explanation of the huge male over-representation in those areas.

    Note that exactly the same factors explain why there is a huge male over-representation at top levels in games of pure abstract intelligence like chess or checkers. For example there is only 1 female in the best 100 chess players worldwide (FIDE rankings). And in the first 10 there is no female at all. All the big chess tournaments (like world championships for example) are open to both genders but as the result of the huge gender gap female-only chess tournaments had to be set up in addition to the all the other ones open to both genders.

    Now, why is the male IQ (and other quantifiable cognitive aptitudes) standard deviation higher than that of females remains to be investigated. But there are early indications that it may very well be rooted in gender biology, maybe even in chromosome arrangements.

  • Dr. K

    Christian Lux:
    So far as perspectives supporting group intellectual differences go, this is a fairly conservative position. Rather than cite the research that often appears in such comments noting a 3-5 point difference in mean IQ between men and women (favoring men, of course), the more conservative “greater standard deviation” variation suggests that, all other things being equal, the bulk of women are more intelligent (by a relatively modest extent) than the bulk of men, but that men are relatively over-represented at the extremes.

    Such arguments do seem to have plausible basis. The gender-based comparisons are embedded in a larger conceptual argument in favor of greater specialization in men, and are related to speculations about gender-specific evolutionary pressures related to gender role differentiation, and dovetail with observations about increased vulnerability to a variety of neurological and social pathologies more common among men (autism, for example, though there are many others).

    There is, of course, a rich tradition of such arguments, involving mean IQ differences from contrasting groups such as immigrants and landed natives in the US, or between various ethnic groups, the latter of which has found new life due to sponsorship by groups such as the (arguably racist, particularly if one grants authoritative credibility to the Southern Poverty Law Center) Pioneer Fund, and researchers such as Pinker, Rushton, and Gottfredson. Aside from the assorted methodological challenges associated with such research, allegations of political motivations are leveled from both sides of the conceptual divide.

    Those of us who with longer memories of research programs utilized to maintain an imbalanced status quo remain unconvinced. While we certainly have more powerful research tools available to us now than we had in the past, the power of these tools also entails a greater vulnerability to their misuse, particularly in regard to which empirical data can be used to provide support for a poorly framed conceptualization. There is also research to suggest that women at the extreme upward tail of the “mathematical ability distribution” utilize somewhat different cognitive strategies to obtain their results, for example. Should this be born out in further investigations, the hypothesis that instructional strategies interact with cognitive differences not in ability but in information-processing style or strategy, gains merit.

    On the basis of present data, the notion that we are ready to discard the null hypothesis and accept that the observation of increased frequency of men at the extremes of ability is due to native differences in aptitude is very premature, at best. This is the basis of Larry Summers’ failure – that he is too quick to assume he understands the nature of what he observes. This appears to be the basis of your failure as well, and why touting statistics in support of your assertion is unpersuasive. The Ellis Island studies were conducted by some of the brightest minds in psychology at the time, and have since been thoroughly debunked (though they are still cited by some who prefer, for various reasons, to embrace their conclusions). Methodological improvements notwithstanding, until the underlying basis for such information processing research can be described*, acceptance of group differences in native ability is irresponsible, has great potential for social harm, and should be decried by anyone with a social conscience, and a memory.

    Debating this branch of research, at least beyond citing justification for (at the very least) a healthy degree of skepticism (which you do not appear to have retained), is and should be beyond the scope of this website.

    *Correlational research on chromosomal differences do not add any significant weight to such a hypothesis, by the way, because all they are doing is adding a layer of granularity to observed differences. They do not in any way describe differences in abilities between people of equivalent ability, and can easily serve to justify continuing disparity in representation in a manner that doesn’t even begin to describe the underlying basis for such disparities.

  • nat

    There is another issue related to Larry Summer’s comments. Even if there was a genetic difference (which, as Dr. K explained so solidly, has not been close to being proven) it could not soley account for the huge discrepancies between males and females in math, engineering, phyiscal sciences. The sociological factors have a much greater influence. I know. I’m a female prof of engineering. I see the sociological factors at play every day.

    Bringing up the innate genetic explanation, takes the focus away from the main factor accouting for the low number of women in these fields. Unlike genetics, the sociological factors can be improved in this country, therefore the focus should be on changing our culture and primary education. Also, Summer’s “innocent conjecture” (my sarcasm here) enormously erodes women’s confidence in overcoming the sociological factors. His comments simply contribute to the primary reason why women are underrepresented. Society (not science) has told them they aren’t as good.

    Also, Summers commented that women aren’t as successful because they can’t put in 80 hour weeks like the men. Give me a break. I’d like to see a log of how those 80 hours are spent. Women who balance family and work know how to use their time more efficiently because they have no other choice.

  • Dr. K

    Hello Nat,
    People like Christian Lux are hardly worth responding to, really. The internet is full of these guys, who seem surprisingly eager to disseminate what amounts to a pre-packaged argument. What they persistently refuse to consider is that they are attempting to answer an astoundingly poorly-asked question, and they stubbornly cling to their framing of it, presumably because of its consonance with their world view.

    What Christian Lux would really like is an opportunity to present further support for his perspective, and further attempts to challenge or refute him really only enable him; it is an invitation for him to further present his pre-formulated case.

    I would suggest that any further comments made by Christian Lux, or any other concern trolls of his stripe, be moderated and allowed to dissipate into the ether. Let this new class of genteel, academic bigots take their dog-and-pony show elsewhere. I’ve already seen it, and I hardly need to sit through it again to tell you that it stinks.

    If any of local scholarly writers elected to take this issue on head-to-head, that might be a different issue. In the meantime it’s just more burdensome distraction by someone who considers Larry Summers to be a victim, and is certainly no ally to the causes promoted by this organization.

  • Dawn C

    “Also, Summers commented that women aren’t as successful because they can’t put in 80 hour weeks like the men. Give me a break. I’d like to see a log of how those 80 hours are spent. Women who balance family and work know how to use their time more efficiently because they have no other choice.”

    Those 80 hour work weeks that men put in are subsidized by the women in their lives who take care of them and the house and the kids so that they can work those hours.

    Who does that for women?

  • Dr. K

    Well, my sister’s husband, actually, but I’m pretty sure he’s a very rare exception.

  • rabbit

    Dr. K:

    Is that your answer? To silence those who you disagree with, whether they be Summers or Christian Lux?

    There has been much discussion about whether Summers’ conjectures were correct. Great. That should be discussed. But even if we eventually find that there is no innate biological basis to differences in performace, should Summers be ostracized and demonized for talking about it?

    Dr. K, you seem intolerant towards those who say things you don’t agree with.

  • Dr. K

    You’re half right. I have little tolerance for people misusing research in my discipline in order to further a social agenda, or to reinforce social prejudices. Psychology has a long, sordid history of such, which I would perhaps be willing to discuss with you, in a forum where such a discussion is appropriate. This forum is intended for other purposes, however, which I’m sure you can understand, and which you should respect.

    Summers was not speaking merely as a researcher, he was speaking as the chief administrator of a highly respected academic institution. If you don’t understand the implications of this role, you’re hardly an objective observer, or sympathetic to the unfortunate uses to which his words would predictably be put [as, in the most generous of interpretations (likely not warranted in Summers’ case), was he].

    This is a feminist forum. It is ludicrous to suggest we here are in some way obligated to address all critics who happen along. If you want to trot your dog and pony show out somewhere else, let me know where, and next time I’m inclined to go chasing windmills, I’ll respond. Otherwise, provide meaningful contributions here and demonstrate some alignment with the goals of this site, or take yourself someplace where your contributions will be appreciated.

  • Kiuku

    I’d like to personally express my intolerance for Rabbit and Christian Lux’s “arguments” on this forum.