Preposterous Universe

Friday, April 15, 2005
Humble Larry

Via Daily Kos, a Washington Post article about the new warm-and-fuzzy Larry Summers.
Last week, Summers (who is addressing the Harvard Club in Washington this evening) struck a very different tone.

"You know, universities like ours were structured in their basic structure many years ago, and it's probably an exaggeration but not too much of one to say that they were designed by men for men," he said. He announced that he had five points, and then spoke extemporaneously for almost half an hour, his mind clicking through the main issues, adding examples drawn from as far afield as the physics of electrical charges and orchestra auditions. But he also spoke with a personal touch, noting that he himself had to draw a strong red line around his private family time, and that he, like everyone, had biases that he was only just learning about.

"I know that there is one additional thing that I've learned and that is that what Harvard does and says has an enormous resonance that goes beyond Zip code 02138," he said near the end. That remark was meant, no doubt, in all humility. Throughout the past months, one consistent criticism of Summers, coming from his supporters and detractors alike, is that you can't just flap your mouth like a brash undergraduate when you're the president of Harvard. But, as with so many things about Harvard and about this particular president of Harvard -- right down to the car he arrives in -- there is a (perhaps) unintentional arrogance to it.

Summers's talk was greeted warmly by those present last week. His light touch, his hints at self-deprecation, his embracing of ideas about discrimination and bias that he seemed to dismiss in January were reassuring. Everyone who has made any effort at developing a theory of Larry Summers -- and that includes most people at Harvard -- would find in this talk evidence that, at worst, he has some rough edges, that his reputation for arrogance is a quirk that he can, through effort, compensate for with charm. But there are many theories of Larry floating around, and for those who hold the darkest of them -- those who parse every word he utters for evidence of malign intent -- this wasn't a new Larry, but merely a guy choosing his words very carefully for public consumption.
I don't know whether the contrition is honest, or just political positioning; but I don't see any reason not to give him the benefit of the doubt. Not that I'm in any hurry for people to forgive and forget; in the meantime, other universities are benefiting as top scholars gradually leave Harvard for more peaceful pastures, such as the return of political scientist Michael Dawson to Chicago.

Defenders of Summers' original remarks consistently miss the point. They would like to pretend that his critics were arguing either that there are no differences between men and women, or (even worse) that we aren't allowed to talk about such questions. Rubbish. As I mentioned long ago, of course there are differences between men and women. Some of them might even be relevant to being a scientist. Some of them might even favor men! It's really hard to tell, since the signal is so incredibly tiny and hard to measure.

It is also not the point. The point (for those who have missed it) is whether such intrinsic differences have anything to do with the actual disparity in the representation of men and women in science. And the truth is, they don't, at least not at any significant level. You can use this hypothesis to make predictions, and they all come out wrong (for example, the under-representation of women should be nearly uniform from place to place and over time, which is dramatically off, even if progress is slow). And you can actually study the factors that keep women away from science, and you find beyond the shadow of a doubt that a slew of systematic biases are to blame. Talk all you want about intrinsic differences, but don't fool yourself into thinking that you're explaining anything about the current situation.

The idea that Summers' critics want to stifle investigation of the truth is even sillier. There are many social scientists who work precisely on the existence and impact of innate differences between men and women; these people are real scholars, and nobody is trying to get in their way. The criticism of Summers was never that he was telling an unpleasant truth, it's that he was wrong. It's okay to be wrong when you're an assistant professor and minor-league blogger like myself; the rules are different when you are the president of a university. In particular, if you choose to turn a blind eye to a substantial degree of discrimination in your midst, which you really should be leading the fight to do away with, and you are clearly unfamiliar with the basics of what you're talking about, don't be surprised when people are upset.

To be perfectly unambiguous, at the risk of being somewhat repetitive: the point is not that certain hypotheses shouldn't be entertained. The point is that, if you are in a position of great influence and authority, and you haven't carefully looked into the subject matter, and you're wrong, and you're wrong in a way that is potentially damaging to a great deal of people -- you're going to get into trouble. (People are welcome to disagree with me that Summers was wrong; but to pretend that anyone was attempting to stifle free inquiry is simply dishonest.) If Summers had come out in favor of creationism or astrology, the reaction would have been very similar. Maybe he's learned a lesson; at least he has people talking about the issues.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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