Deviate Women

Before reading this entire entry, please answer the poll question below.

Imagine you live in a totalitarian state and you and your partner are planning to have a child. The doctor, a geneticist, tells you that you must choose a wide or narrow intelligence range for your child. If it is a wide range, your child has a better chance of being a genius -- or being mentally handicapped. If it's a narrow range, your child is unlikely to be a genius, but also unlikely to be mentally handicapped.

Will you choose a wider intelligence range?

Wider Range
Narrower Range

Early in 2005, Lawrence Summers, the former president of Harvard University, touched off a firestorm of controversy and was forced to resign when he suggested that women were not as intelligent as men.

Well, that's what the media told us.

Summers didn't say that. He didn't say anything close to that. What he said, however, was strange enough that people either by accident or design misrepresented what he said.

What Summers claimed was that his preliminary statistical analysis of IQs suggested that women have a narrower IQ variance. Summers was very careful to note that his analysis was fraught with possible error, but if true, could be used to explain the gender inequality in certain fields. Unfortunately, issues such as race and gender are such hot button topics that daring to suggest innate differences can easily lead to controversy. Few dispute that people of African descent are more likely to have sickle cell anemia. Ashkenazi Jews might have higher IQs than average (there is some controversy here, but I suspect that since it plays into stereotypes, there's less controversy than one might expect). Breast cancer is more likely to strike women and black, African-American men are more likely to get prostate cancer.

Since we know that many traits are closely related to race and gender, it's not terribly surprising that men and women have differences, but to suggest a difference in IQ is very, very dangerous to your careers. Summers knew this and was very careful to include plenty of caveats, but it wasn't enough.

So what did Summers really say?

Let's flip two coins. We'll think of them as two-sided dice with heads being equal to one and tails being equal to two. Assuming it's a fair coin, each side has a 50% chance of coming up and we can create a chart of possible flips as follows:

Coin 1Coin 2TotalPercent
1 (heads)1 (heads)225%
1 (heads)2 (tails)325%
2 (tails)1 (heads)325%
2 (tails)1 (tails)425%

As you can see, each of the four combinations has an equal chance of occuring, but the total of 3 has a 50% chance of occuring since there are two ways that it can occur. Now this is pretty simple to see from the above list, but think about a classic role playing game such as D&D where for each statistic of your character, you roll 3 six-sided dice (3d6). The lowest base stat you can get is 3 (rolling 3 ones) and the highest base stat you can get is 18 (rolling 3 sixes). As it turns out, each of those numbers has less than a .5% chance of coming up, but the mostly likely results are 10 and 11 (the mean is 10.5, but you can't roll that). In fact, those numbers occur, on average, 54 out of 216 times, or 25% of the time. In fact, here's a simple table of distributions:


So as you can see, you've likely to have an average stat and therefore an average character. If you're only allowed to roll once, a smart gamer will examine his or her stats and choose a profession (character class) which matches the stats. However, in some games, stats are decided by two ten sided dice (2d10). Let's look at those distributions:


If you only had one game and you were given a choice between 3d6 and 2d10, which would you choose? With the former, you're more likely to be average. With the latter, you're more likely to be exceptionally good or exceptionally bad. It all depends on your tolerance for risk.

Dice rolls form a normal distribution and are plotted as a bell curve. The most commonly occurring numbers form the rise in the center of the bell and slope down to each side. The distribution of these numbers follows what's called the 'standard deviation'. This number tells us how likely a given number is to deviate from the mean (average) value of the numbers. About 68% of numbers are one standard deviation from the mean, 95% are two standard deviations from the mean and 99.7% are three standard deviations from the mean.

For the 3d6 stats, the standard deviation turns out to be roughly 3 (2.96 with a mean of 10.5). For 2d10, the standard deviation is roughly 4 (4.06 with a mean of 11). So 95% (2 standard deviations) of 3d6 rolls will be roughly 5 to 16 (rounded off) and 95% of 2d10 rolls will be between 3 and 19 (also rounded off).

What does this mean (no pun intended) for IQ? Well, the average IQ is 100 and the standard deviation is 15 points. This means that 68% of all IQs are expected to be between 85 and 115. 95% are between 70 and 130 and 99.7% of all IQs are between 55 and 145.

Now Summers stated that his results implied that "the difference in implied standard deviations" is about 20%. I took that quote from the excellent book Super Crunchers, but it wasn't terribly clear what Summers thought the deviations might be per gender, so I'll take the simplest (and probably incorrect) assumption that he meant men have a standard deviation of 15 while women are at 13. This means that 99.7% of women (3 standard deviations) will have IQs between 61 and 139 instead of the men's 55 to 145. Men are 2d10 and women are 3d6.

Of course, IQ is often considered to be a rather dubious metric. Tests sometimes reflect cultural bias, they may not reflect a fixed quantity (there's evidence that diet and exercise have a large role) and, at its core, IQ may not even reflect intelligence. An overly emotional individual with a high IQ may be more error prone in some situations than a calm person with a lower IQ. There's also the thorny question of whether IQ is more a function of genetics or culture.

That being said, let's finish off with an interesting quote from the Super Crunchers book I mentioned earlier.

You are told you can choose the range of possible IQs that your child will have but this range must be centered on an IQ of 100. Any IQ withing that range is equally likely to occur. What range would you choose -- 95 to 105, or would you roll the dice on a wider range of, say, 60 to 140? When I asked this question to a group of fourth and sixth graders, they invariably chose ranges that were incredibly small (nothing wider than 95-105).

So these children, at least, clearly felt that the female's alleged IQ variance was a better choice, but obviously the journalists hounding for Summer's job didn't ask them. Frankly, I find this a bit frustrating. Some say that we simply shouldn't be allowed to ask "disturbing" questions because they don't gain us anything, but that's wrong. In science, we constantly find that asking questions leads to unexpected answers and while we don't always get the answers we want, we often learn new things which can help us. Constraining us beforehand merely means that we're less likely to get the unpleasant answers, but we're also less likely to get the pleasant ones. Sound familiar?

  • Current Mood: thoughtful thoughtful
I chose narrow range.

1) I don't think that having a super high IQ has served me or made my life better. I would happily shave off 40 points or so. I think I would be better off with a lower IQ.

2) I think that things like IQ are genetic and it probably doesn't even matter what I choose, I'd get a smart kid, anyway, if I ever bred.
Doing a threat to benefit analysis, I'd take the safe route to minimize the chance of them being mentally handicap. Being a genius doesn't mean you'll do well at life. It's more what you do with what you have that matters. Effort will trump IQ in most cases. Though ultimately as a parent, more importantly than hoping your child is successful and happy in their life is that they'll be healthy and happy in their life. This made my vote an easy one.

Roy F. Baumeister:

When I say I am researching how culture exploits men, the first reaction is usually “How can you say culture exploits men, when men are in charge of everything?” This is a fair objection and needs to be taken seriously. It invokes the feminist critique of society. This critique started when some women systematically looked up at the top of society and saw men everywhere: most world rulers, presidents, prime ministers, most members of Congress and parliaments, most CEOs of major corporations, and so forth – these are mostly men.

Seeing all this, the feminists thought, wow, men dominate everything, so society is set up to favor men. It must be great to be a man.

The mistake in that way of thinking is to look only at the top. If one were to look downward to the bottom of society instead, one finds mostly men there too. Who’s in prison, all over the world, as criminals or political prisoners? The population on Death Row has never approached 51% female. Who’s homeless? Again, mostly men. Whom does society use for bad or dangerous jobs? US Department of Labor statistics report that 93% of the people killed on the job are men.

That’s from an address titled “Is There Anything Good About Men?”. Read the entire thing.

I am sincere. I had never heard of our societal structure being explained this way. It makes sense and helped me to do away with a great deal of resentment around our cultural treatment of women throughout history. This had a serious impact on my way of thinking and I am very grateful. Thank you.
That read was amazing. Seriously. I really quite enjoyed reading that, and hadn't ever thought of things from quite that angle.
Based on the question alone, before reading, I said I'd pick the wider range. It just sounds like a better option, as I hadn't thought about the range having any negative aspects. I didn't initially imagine it as a range of IQ, but more like a broadness of intellect, and I think I'd much rather have the wider range of knowledge.

Having read the rest, well, it turns out I'd probably wind up picking the narrower range, I think. Risk/reward is good and all, but it's hard to say that one could play such a game with their child's life, and it's not like an average IQ is going to be the worst thing in the world -- plus, as has been said, IQ isn't exactly the best indicator.
I choose a large range for society as a whole (because we need a few geniuses, and simpletons are useful for keeping the streets swept clean </generalisation>) but I choose a small range for my own kids, as I can't stand simpletons.