Larry Summers on Biology

Harvard has finally released the text of the controversial remarks that Larry Summers made at a conference in January. A reading of the transcription shows Summers speculating at length about the role that different factors play in the representation of women in high-ranking positions generally, and in academia and the science in particular. Summers does mention something that could be construed as ‘natural talent’, but it’s clear that the critics that claim that he said that ‘women weren’t as good at math’ were only hearing what they wanted. There’s a good summary of the fallout immediately after the conference here.

In short, what Summers said about natural ability was this: there is a wide range of scores among males and females in a variety of tests that purport to measure mathematical ability, overall IQ, etc. While there are social factors that play into those scores, and the tests themselves can be criticized, they do seem to consistently show a wider range of scores in males- not just higher scores, but lower scores as well. Females seem to fall into a narrower band of ability, clustered more closely around the mean (which is likely higher for females in some areas, and higher for males in others). Top positions in fields that rely primarily on intellectual abilities are likely to be drawn from the extreme high edge of the distribution- the area where there are more males, because of the more extreme scoring patterns (high and low) of the male population.

Furthermore, what everyone seems to be overlooking is how much of Summers’ speech was devoted to Summers proclaiming his own ignorance, and the possibility that more experimental data would counter any ideas that he was floating. He seemed to be primarily interested in highlighting areas that he, as an economist and administrator, saw as being fruitful areas for asking serious research questions about the role of gender and other factors in achievement and representation. Frankly, most of his speech sounds apologetic to me, like someone who is trying to talk about a divisive subject and is desperately scared of coming across as biased or presumptuous. He was asked to speak as an economist, and he made reference to economic theories and caged his discussion of ability in a fairly limited, statistically-based way. In the question session, he did seem dismissive of a few questions, but overall seemed to be quite open to the idea that additional research- or existing research that he wasn’t aware of- would disprove his theories about the relative roles of different factors in female representation in top-level jobs.

I attended Harvard during the beginning of Summers’ tenure as president. I don’t personally feel that he was the best choice as a president for the University. While the current fiasco over biology is largely overblown, I think that there are sound larger reasons why Harvard faculty confronted Summers at a recent faculty meeting. Summers’ remarks, while not nearly the ‘biological determinism’ that some of his accusers have claimed, come across as clumsy and blunt. On several occasions, he failed to adequitely clarify his points, instead offering blanket disavowments of the ‘I could be wrong’ variety.

A University president, particularly of a school as well-known and influential as Harvard, needs to be able to communicate clearly and, when necessary, diplomatically. On several occasions Summers has shown that he has difficulty with the latter; in conflicts with students and members of the African-American Studies department early on in his time at Harvard, and in later disputes over the future of the University that left some faculty members feeling ignored.

Right or wrong, there is a certain amount of ego-stroking that must be engaged in by a University president; the work produced by Harvard’s star academics is the foundation of Harvard’s reputation and prominence, and Summers ability to maintain the quality and quantity of staff at the University will make or break his tenure. So far, it hasn’t been clear that Summers is capable or willing to make these sorts of compromises, or even recognizes their role in keeping the University running smoothly.

It will be a shame if Summers ends up loosing his position at Harvard over these remarks- a remote but distinct possibility. Leaving in the wake of the over-blown accusations of sexism stemming from the NBER remarks will obscure the more serious problems with Summers’ administration, and turn him into a martyr for Conservative critics of Ivory Tower eliteism. It would be far better if Summers is allowed to continue on as president and succeed or fail on his own merit, rather than the sensitivities of his most hysterical critics.


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