Summers Gone, Yet Again

I can’t believe this is back on the table: Politico is reporting that Larry Summers’ potential candidacy for Treasury secretary may have been kiboshed because of “an intense backlash from women’s groups.” Summers, you will recall, was forced to step down as head of Harvard three years ago because of a similar backlash from women’s groups, over a speech he gave in which he speculated as to the reasons why women continue to be vastly unrepresented as professors at the highest levels in the sciences and engineering. 

In the speech, Summers suggested that there were three possible (and non-exclusive) explanations. The first was that men have traditionally been more willing than women to work the 80 or so hours a week it takes to succeed at the highest levels in these fields. Second, he proposed that, as with many other features that differ between the sexes, male intelligence might be more variable than female intelligence. That is, even supposing that on average women are just as smart as men, there might be more highly intelligent, and more highly stupid, men than women. Finally, he conceded that some degree of socialisation and discrimination is probably in play. He also said that as far as he could tell, this was also the order of importance, from most to least. 

Some things to note here.

First, at no point did Summers say that males are inherently more intelligent than women, despite what continues to get reported in the media. Here is the offending passage:

“It does appear that on many, many different human attributes-height, weight, propensity for criminality, overall IQ, mathematical ability, scientific ability – there is relatively clear evidence that whatever the difference in means – which can be debated – there is a difference in the standard deviation, and variability of a male and a female population.” 

 Second, part of the point of the speech he gave was to challenge his audience. Here’s his opening sentence:

I asked Richard, when he invited me to come here and speak, whether he wanted an institutional talk about Harvard’s policies toward diversity or whether he wanted some questions asked and some attempts at provocation, because I was willing to do the second and didn’t feel like doing the first.

Third, throughout the speech Summers bends over backwards to avoid saying anything that could be interpreted as endorsing the status quo. He repeatedly stresses that he wants to separate positive statements (that is, empirical claims) from normative judgments. He makes it clear that the point of understanding the causes of the imbalance is to figure out ways of minimizing it. And he repeatedly concedes that he could be wrong on a great many points and invites argument and debate. 

In short, there is nothing in this speech that indicates a “record of derogatory comments aimed at women”, as The New Agenda, a women rights’ group founded by former supporters of Hillary Clinton, accused him the other day.  Three years on, and Larry Summers continues to pay the price for something he never said. 

Meanwhile, nobody at The New Agenda — or anywhere else for that matter — seems to have had any problem with the current president of Harvard, Ms. Drew Gilpin Faust, believing in innate differences between the sexes. 

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