« The Plantagenets of Hazard | Main | Women and Science »

January 23, 2005

Larry Summers learns a lesson

Larry Summers has posted a letter at the Harvard website. He profusely apologizes for his comments at an NBER conference last week regarding the dominance of men in the sciences. Summers had offered a number of possible explanations for the gap (more to stimulate further research than argue for any of them).* Summers has something of a reputation as a provacateur in terms of stimulating research.

I am personally very skeptical of the idea that women are genetically destined to achieve less in science than men do (for one thing, casual empriricism, the intellectual crutch that keeps me walking upright, tells me so: my wife has defeated too many tricky multiple integrals and differential equations that had first defeated me) and not because I find the idea abhorrent: it is either true or isn't and my emotional reaction is really quite irrelevant. I just find it far fetched. What evolutionary mechanism could possibly explain such a gap? How could our experiences 600,000 years ago have programmed men to better understand organic chemistry today? (Note that this isn't some attempt to put myself on the politically correct side of things as insurance as I defend Summers: I have no problem being politically incorrect and, if I believed women fell short of men in some regard or another, I'd have no problem saying it.)

But whatever my suspicions, the reasons that women fall short of men in the sciences (by any number of measures) is rightly a scientific question. And it should be examined carefully (Summers obviously thinks so: he showed up for the conference). But I don't believe that this should be turned into a political one (at least until scientific research has convincingly revealed factors that can be addressed politically, a point we fall far short of at this point).

The storm Summers has faced sends a terrible message to social scientists: we are totally committed to intellectual freedom. Unless it offends someone. That concerns me far more than the particular issues at hand. I'm afraid that in the future we will get politically, rather than scientifically, correct research.

Some might respond by saying that such license could be used to advance racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. theories. That's true, but as long as best scientific practice is the overarching principal with which we approach inquiry, theories motivated by racist, sexist, etc. agendas will be outed (because they are ultimately not rooted in science).

As a university president, Summers' most important ultimate duty must be to uphold the pursuit of truth, even if that means offending political sensibilities. I'm actually amazed how few people have noted the importance Summers evidently attaches to this issue: he showed up for the conference and was willing to say the controversial things. If he had regarded this issue as unimportant, anyone as smart as Larry Summers would have made the smart play: either avoid the conference or show up and issue the usual dull and unchallenging platitudes.

I will grant you that there is a certain bent irony to Summers' current situation: to a certain extent this is the world that he helped make. Don't forget that it was President Summers who tried to chill criticism of Israel (including divestiture proposals) by suggesting that it verged on anti-Semitism. This was in the context an outrageous charge. A reasonable person can in fact be enormously disturbed by, for instance, the human cost to the Palestinians of the Israeli settlement movement. President Summers attempts to put critics on the defensive with cheap charges of anti-Semitism was really an attempt to introduce a chilling effect. That was a shame: the better strategy for the president of a university committed to intellectual freedom would have been to answer the criticisms directly (and there are answers that a reasonable person could accept).

(For the record: I was and still am opposed to the idea of divesting from Israel. That's not a secret among the people who know me.)

On a totally different note, The Economist had a great quote in its latest issue: "A radical who runs away from his own revolution is merely a vandal."

*For those who are interested, here are a few interesting articles about the brouhaha:
Lawrence Summers, Provocateur

President of Harvard Tells Women's Panel He's Sorry

I loved the following passage from this one:

arlier in the day, Dr. Summers got yet another indication of just how upset faculty members were over his remarks when more than 100 of the about 600 professors on Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences added their names to a letter endorsing the reproachful letter sent him by the standing committee. Howard Georgi, a former chairman of the physics department, said he collected the names over the past two days by issuing a mass e-mail message to a faculty Caucus for Gender Equity.

Many members of the caucus spread the word to colleagues, and Dr. Georgi received an outpouring of e-mail messages from faculty members wishing to register their concern to Dr. Summers, he said.

"In two days, at a time when faculty are busy finishing exams and dispersing for intersession, the response was rather remarkable," Dr. Georgi said in the letter to Dr. Summers, which he delivered to the Harvard president's office yesterday, along with the list of some 120 professors who had endorsed it. "I believe that this outpouring of support is important. It is my hope that it will be useful as part of the foundation for a broad-based effort to eliminate hidden discrimination in all its forms."

Dr. Georgi had e-mailed Dr. Summers earlier in the week, saying he thought that it had been a mistake for the Harvard president to speak as an intellectual provocateur during his remarks at the academic conference, forgetting that they would be interpreted as the beliefs of the university's leader. Dr. Summers phoned Dr. Georgi, acknowledging that he had made a mistake, Dr. Georgi said.

At the Jan. 14 conference, at the National Bureau of Economic Research, a nonprofit economic research organization in Cambridge, Dr. Summers angered several of the women present, one of whom walked out, by suggesting that innate gender differences may explain why fewer women succeed in science and math careers. The meeting was taped, but Harvard has declined to make either the tape or a transcript public. Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, who has held hearings on a federal law guaranteeing equal educational opportunities for women, said he called Dr. Summers yesterday and found him contrite.

"He very much regrets what he said at that conference," Senator Wyden said. "He knows that he clearly crossed the line."

Hidden discrimination? Crossed the line? Wow. These guys sure know how to induce a chilling effect.

"It had been a mistake for the Harvard president to speak as an intellectual provocateur during his remarks at the academic conference, forgetting that they would be interpreted as the beliefs of the university's leader"??? Well, don't complain about the anti-intellectual spineless wonders that this kind of thinking will produce.

Harvard Chief Defends His Talk on Women

Posted by dag at January 23, 2005 09:16 PM


The thing is, Summers' remarks are just dumb. Any brain researcher will tell you that we're not that far from phrenology when it comes to linking individual brain anatomy and function with actual human outcomes; what we've got *just isn't predictive.* Period.

Summers has the capacity to mount an actual scientific experiment -- he runs the world's most prestigious university and has an unprecedented degree of control over hiring and tenure, which recent history shows he's been more than willing to use. He could mount an experiment by hiring women, removing the workaday impediments to their full participation (such as availability of childcare), and see what happens. When he has a way to get at the answer, but doesn't have the will to do it, and throws up his hands and says "oh well it's just brain stuff, who can do anything about it," it's just silly, if not mendacious.

The history of people arguing for determinism of human outcomes from brain studies is downright scary; people who measured the heads of blacks and Jews and pronounced them not fit for better than menial work. The history of this should give Summers pause; he should learn about it, before he repeats it.

Posted by: Lisa Williams at January 27, 2005 11:48 PM

Lisa, thanks for your comments (you have a nice blog). A few points:

1. I am skpetical of the predictive power of innate differences between men and women (refer to the sections of my post touching on my onw beliefs). However, predictive power is an issue still wholly unresolved. The case isn't closed, though I have my suspicions about the eventual verdict. There are researchers at Summers instituttion pursuing these very questions as part of active and widely respected research agendas. Saying it has been absolutely resolved is a political rather than scientific statement.

2. Summers did in fact focus in one part of his talk on the sort of structural/social issues to which you refer. He actually questioned whether women who want to raise a family can have such an enormously demanding role given gender bias in doemstic roles. He suggested the importance of exactly the factors you mention. And indeed they are important: raising a family is a terrible burden for young female scholars, particularly since the highest domestic demands come at an absolutely crucial formative moment in their careers. I am actually impressed by the domestic (or rather, really, emotional) costs of top flight academic careers even for men. I was once told a (probably apocryphal) joke about a faculty meeting at the University of Chicago. A young guy who had recently joined the faculty stood up and said "My wife is waiting for me and if I don't go home she'll divorce me" at which point a more senior faculty member said "good, you'll fit in better." There is a reason I am not at Harvard: I want to have a happy marriage. (The other reason would, I suppose, be that nagging 62 point IQ deficit.)

3. Your last paragraph is correct: there is a long and strange history here (most reccent notable installment being the Bell Curve, out of Summers very own insitution (I forget who actually published it). A qualifying statement on his part in light of the long and disreputable history here probably was in order.

But what will happen in academia when we politicize research questions in the manner that has occurred in this incident? The paramount issue in academics is the search for truth, no matter how painful it is. If Summers suggestions are scietifically incorrect, then beat him there (in all likelihood he can be beaten scientifically on these points). That is the appropriate level on which to expose the banality of one's ideas in academics, rather than darkly referring to "crossing the line" as the sentaor put it.

So, my objection transcends this issue: it is about the nature of the litmus test guiding these reactions to his talk.

Posted by: dag at January 28, 2005 09:51 AM

Hi! In my point 1 -- I'm not arguing that there will *never* be predictive power; just that there isn't any today.

Regarding #2, has Harvard finally released a transcript of what he did actually say? Last time I heard they were not releasing it. What we've got is the inflammatory quote.

I don't agree, however, that the reaction to Summers' speech is inappropriate. There's a big difference between censorship and censure. No one should be prevented from having their say; but no one should be shielded from the social consequences of what they say, either. (I'm not going to talk to the Senator's remarks, which seem pretty dumb to me. "line?" Please.)

If someone says that blacks are genetically inferior, proving him or her wrong on a scientific level only removes half of the problem; the other half is addressing the real or apparent prejudice. The latter is a social, and, yes, moral issue. It's fine to say "You're wrong." But to clean up the prejudice you may also have to say, "Shame on you, for letting your prejudice cloud your reason." What people are doing is addressing the real or apparent prejudice. That's entirely appropriate.

Posted by: Lisa Williams at January 28, 2005 11:16 AM

Oh, and agree completely regarding the burden on scholars with families, both male and female. I'm not actually in academia. Americans now work more hours than the Japanese, and watch less TV. That's surely a sign of the apocalypse :)

Posted by: Lisa Williams at January 28, 2005 11:17 AM

There is a difference between censorship (as a formal legal move) and censure (as a social or politcal thing). But the latter is not without power or consequence, and clearly the chilling effect referred to lies within the range that spans the two.
The absence of proof of a predictive effect one way or another (where we stand now) is not a reasonable basis for censure.
Your last point is on it's terms correct, but the problem is that the first litmus test has not been passed: there is no real extensive scientific evidence or understanding the predictive power. Hence, there is no basis for justifying the latter (prejudice per se has not been demonstrated).

I have a strange feeling that Harvard will release as few of the details as possible (old Larry has a certain insurmountable conflict of interest here, I would say).

The TV thing is indeed frightening: I myself am now down to only 11 hours a day.

All kidding aside, I have been impressed by the degree to which top level academic careers basically owns you.

Posted by: dag at January 28, 2005 09:00 PM

Post a comment

Remember Me?