Steven D. Levitt
07/30/2008 | 1:43 pm
Alex Tabarrok over at Marginal Revolution has an interesting post on media coverage of the recent Science paper that argued against gender differences in math test scores.
Tabarrok says that the media misreported the story and Larry Summers is still right.
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More data that proves Larry Summers might not be the male chauvinist that everyone was so keen to make him out as. I think most people are so disturbed by the data that they immediately attack anyone who quotes it. I think it’s very disheartening that so many people are taking this head-in-sand approach.
I’m haven’t read the Science article, but the type of standardized tests taken in schools aren’t sensitive to the 4+ standard deviations Mr. Tabarrok is talking about. If ten students get a perfect score, they’re all reported as the same percentile even though there’s almost certainly a difference in their abilities.
Furthermore, you can’t extrapolate anything about “innate math ability” (whatever the heck that is) from a standardized test designed to test achievment. Tabarrok’s analysis doesn’t say that Larry Summers is right, his analysis says that there still exists a gender achievement gap in mathematics. It’s a reflection of the bias in our culture, not of the inherent abilities of boys and girls.
I also haven’t read the Science article, but your point about the tests insensitivity to 4+ standard deviations was the point as all those 4+ standard deviations above the norm would have had perfect scores. So the difference between male and female performance at very high levels could be even greater than the test would have measured. It seems odd to suggest the smaller pool of top females would contain more math rock stars than a larger sample of males.
I tend to agree with your point on “innate” math ability though. Even if we accept differences in some innate abilities, there is no reason to believe those differences correspond to what it takes to be a great mathematician or that there even is one thing, other than an interest in math, that creates a good mathematician.
Basically, it doesn’t matter what is in your skull, it matters if you can do the math.
A single study certainly can’t prove Summers right or wrong. Besides, didn’t he only say that there ‘might’ be a difference?
The real story here is the way the study was misreported…
The data shows that there is a gender gap in the variance of mathematical achievement, not the mean. The extra male geniuses are balanced by the extra morons.
If there were a bias in our culture, why would the average scores of boys and girls be the same? And why would there be more boys performing at the lowest levels than girls?
If you believe in evolution, you have to believe that generalized abilities can differ (inherently) between different varieties of the human species.
Anybody know whether they’ve cross-correlated the variance with the sex-ratio at birth?
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