Friday, February 18, 2005

Summers Transcript

Harvard has released a transcript of Summers' remarks from the January conference at the NBER. There is good coverage of the remarks in several places in the blogosphere:

Rick Richman provides a sympathetic analysis of the remarks. Rick also links to this column from last month by Andrew Sullivan, which very eloquently identifies how troubling it is that there are some who are so eager to take offense at Summers' inquiry. Over at the Corner, Jonah Goldberg is posting frequently about the show trial. He also links to Posse Incitatus, who thinks the witch hunt is displaced anger over electoral defeat from the political left.

Via Joe's Dartblog, I discover that some Yale students are peeved that their President isn't taking part in the witch hunt. I suppose they would be happier if he had co-signed this statement from his peers at MIT, Stanford, and Princeton:
The question we must ask as a society is not “can women excel in math, science and engineering?” -- Marie Curie exploded that myth a century ago -- but “how can we encourage more women with exceptional abilities to pursue careers in these fields?” Extensive research on the abilities and representation of males and females in science and mathematics has identified the need to address important cultural and societal factors. Speculation that “innate differences” may be a significant cause of underrepresentation by women in science and engineering may rejuvenate old myths and reinforce negative stereotypes and biases.
That might be interesting, if Summers had actually asked the question, "Can women excel ..." or if he had actually said that cultural and societal factors played no role in explaining the differences in male and female science careers at top universities. What he did was to craft an argument that suggests that biological differences--in the form of more men in both the top and bottom parts of the distribution of abilities--may play more of a role in explaining what we observe at top universities than is commonly believed. The last sentence of this quote above--that even Summers' speculation of this hypothesis may have these bad consequences--is particularly disappointing. A more intelligent statement is found in the Andrew Sullivan column noted above:
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s brilliant scientist Steven Pinker put it better than I can: “Look, the truth cannot be offensive. Perhaps the hypothesis is wrong, but how would we ever find out whether it is wrong if it is ‘offensive’ even to consider it? People who storm out of a meeting at the mention of a hypothesis, or declare it taboo or offensive without providing arguments or evidence, don’t get the concept of a university or free inquiry.”
Pinker is right--these folks don't get the concept. But fortunately, Summers does. Here's the key summary quote from his remarks:
So my best guess, to provoke you, of what's behind all of this is that the largest phenomenon, by far, is the general clash between people's legitimate family desires and employers' current desire for high power and high intensity, that in the special case of science and engineering, 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. I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong, because I would like nothing better than for these problems to be addressable simply by everybody understanding what they are, and working very hard to address them.
I have a simple suggestion for all of the Harvard faculty who feel compelled to attend the "emergency meeting" next week. If you think that what Summers said at the NBER is unbecoming of Harvard's president, then what you need to do is not to vote "no confidence" in him, but to submit your own resignation.

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Anonymous said...


Mark said...

Yes, very well said!

Sarah said...

I think there are many legitimate questions that should be proposed to Summers. Why would a university president with training in economics throw out unsubstantiated 'guesses' in a field in which he has no training? As Steven Pinker also mentioned in his New Republic article, suggesting that the difference in male/female achievement is biological is taboo for a reason: this explanation was used for centuries to discredit and discriminate against women, and continues to be used today. Downplaying the sociological role in women's underachievement in some fields is a cop out that shifts responsibility to mother nature. At any rate, whether this public beating is deserved or no, it's hard for me to imagine that he didn't realize his comments would be provocative, and it's getting harder and harder to stomach this ongoing wave of pity.