• President Summers Gave a Speech

    Email Print

    Lawrence Summers,
    the president of Harvard University – so far – got himself
    in a potful of trouble recently by giving a speech in which he commented
    on the relative intellectual inability of women to do higher-level
    mathematics and sciences that rely heavily on mathematics.

    So, Dr. Summers
    got a series of double-barreled verbal shotgun blasts from mathematically
    challenged members of the Harvard faculty.

    No one, especially
    Dr. Summers thought it relevant to mention the
    list of Nobel Prize-winning female scientists
    . Two have won
    prizes in physics, three in chemistry. There were seven in medicine
    and physiology. (Ten have won in literature.) No woman has won in
    economics. In fact, there has been only one female economist in
    history with a major reputation: Joan Robinson of Cambridge University,
    a Keynesian.

    No one thought
    to look at winners of international mathematics awards for exceptional
    genius. Women seldom if ever rarely win these awards

    Among chess
    Grand Masters, there are two women (the Polgar sisters).

    You know this.
    I know this. Surely, Fred
    Reed knows this
    . But those faculty members at Harvard University
    who also know this are discreet enough (not, be it noted, discrete
    enough) to keep their mouths shut.

    As a mathematically
    challenged non-winner of any Nobel Prize, let me assert my fundamental
    right to comment on Dr. Summers. Dr. Summers has the history of
    science on his side. But he does not have verbal skills on his side
    — an area in which women consistently outperform men on the standardized


    The speech
    in which Dr. Summers made his gaffe has received almost no attention
    by the media. This is understandable. It was a speech to the National
    Bureau of Economic Research, or NBER.

    The NBER was
    founded two generations ago by Wesley C. Mitchell, a statistician-economist
    who wanted the organization to provide statistical information on
    the economy and reports based on lots of statistics. Those of us
    who are familiar with NBER publications are well aware of the fact
    that no one should ever read one while smoking in bed.

    Dr. Summers
    has decided to post a transcript of his speech on his very own Harvard
    University Web page
    (so far). That he would allow one of his
    speeches to be published on his site is an indication of poor judgment.
    I mean, people who never went to Harvard and who therefore may still
    be impressed by the place can actually read what the head of the
    institution has said in public. That it would be an NBER speech
    is even more astonishing.

    as members of their profession are not generally known for their
    ability to communicate verbally. In this respect, free market economists
    have an advantage. They do, on occasion, speak at common people,
    and they have been forced to learn how to communicate in the vernacular.
    This ability is much less common among Keynesians – a tradition
    begun by Keynes himself, after he became a Keynesian, though not
    before when he was quite persuasive verbally. (Compare his Essays
    in Persuasion
    with The
    General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money

    Dr. Summers
    is an economist. He is not a free market economist. Hence, he has
    problems with the English language. His speech is a testimony to
    his training in what might best be described as the Dwight D. Eisenhower
    School of Communications.

    The speech
    began with what he hoped would be regarded as a disclaimer.

    so we have agreed that I am speaking unofficially and not using
    this as an occasion to lay out the many things we’re doing at Harvard
    to promote the crucial objective of diversity.

    That he was
    naïve enough to imagine that this disclaimer would protect
    him from the furies of the distaff side of the faculty indicates
    that his career is evidence (however anecdotal) supporting the Peter
    Principle: “Every employee rises to his level of incompetence.”
    (Professor Peter, over three decades ago, was wise enough to use
    “his” rather than “his/her.”) Immediately he
    launched into his speech — or perhaps “slogged” is a better

    going to confine myself to addressing one portion of the problem,
    or of the challenge we’re discussing, which is the issue of women’s
    representation in tenured positions in science and engineering at
    top universities and research institutions, not because that’s necessarily
    the most important problem or the most interesting problem, but
    because it’s the only one of these problems that I’ve made an effort
    to think in a very serious way about. The other prefatory comment
    that I would make is that I am going to, until most of the way through,
    attempt to adopt an entirely positive, rather than normative approach,
    and just try to think about and offer some hypotheses as to why
    we observe what we observe without seeing this through the kind
    of judgmental tendency that inevitably is connected with all our
    common goals of equality.

    He was just
    getting warmed up. He was still in the first paragraph — actually,
    only about two-thirds through it. His next sentence should have
    sent out a Code Yellow warning to his audience.

    is after all not the case that the role of women in science is the
    only example of a group that is significantly under-represented
    in an important activity and whose underrepresentation contributes
    to a shortage of role models for others who are considering being
    in that group.

    There was no immediate reference to the well-known institutional
    discrimination by the male-dominated, bourgeois, academic culture
    (despite, somehow, three decades of successful lawsuits by female
    academics, not to mention the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission).

    He went on
    to offer three hypotheses: (1) the “high-powered job”
    hypothesis; (2) the “different availability of aptitude at
    the high end” (Code Red!!! Code Red!!!); and (3) “different
    socialization and patterns of discrimination in a search.”
    Women are under-represented in science and industry and the professions.
    Furthermore, there appears to be a pattern here.

    the relatively few women who are in the highest ranking places are
    disproportionately either unmarried or without children, with the
    emphasis differing depending on just who you talk to.

    Talk to? One
    does not speak at the NBER about people talked to. One speaks about
    patterns within a statistically relevant sample.

    think it is hard — and again, I am speaking completely descriptively
    and non-normatively — to say that there are many professions and
    many activities, and the most prestigious activities in our society
    expect of people who are going to rise to leadership positions in
    their forties near total commitments to their work. They expect
    a large number of hours in the office, they expect a flexibility
    of schedules to respond to contingency, they expect a continuity
    of effort through the life cycle, and they expect — and this is
    harder to measure — but they expect that the mind is always working
    on the problems that are in the job, even when the job is not taking

    As an economist,
    the man can put 2 and 2 together. Successful people work long hours.
    But he had uttered a dangerous phrase — dangerous at the NBER, anyway:
    “this is harder to measure.” Anyone who says this in front
    of the NBER had better has a pile of preliminary statistical results
    of these hard-to-measure patterns. Summers had no such data. He
    was in a big pile from that point on.

    it is a fact about our society that that is a level of commitment
    that a much higher fraction of married men has been historically
    prepared to make than of married women. That’s not a judgment about
    how it should be, not a judgment about what they should expect.

    No moral judgments,
    of course – not from a value-free economist and Harvard president
    (so far). “Just the facts, ‘mam.” (“‘Mam”? What
    would the script writers have Joe Friday say today?)

    Although he
    did not mention this, men who are in these highest ranking places
    are married and do have children, though possibly by an older, earlier
    wife. Problem: the NBER is alert to any attempt to explain statistical
    patterns like this one by means of anecdotal evidence, such as “all
    the men I have spoken with say they never did plan to stay at home
    with the kids.” So, Summers wisely avoided this particular
    minefield. He had others to march through, however.

    it seems to me that it is very hard to look at the data and escape
    the conclusion that that expectation is meeting with the choices
    that people make and is contributing substantially to the outcomes
    that we observe. One can put it differently.

    One had darned
    sure better put it differently if one wants to be understood. Another
    way to put the point is to say, what fraction of young women in
    their mid-twenties make a decision that they don’t want to have
    a job that they think about eighty hours a week.

    My guess —
    not based on an NBER-certified sample — is “a whole lot of

    the fraction of young men makes a decision that they’re unwilling to
    have a job that they think about eighty hours a week, and to observe
    what the difference is.

    The number
    will be just about the same as the previous number. Of course, I’m
    guessing. But, then again, I’m not speaking at the NBER.


    At this point,
    he got to hypothesis #2: “different availability of aptitude
    at the high end.”

    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.

    He had only
    one way out, only one possible opportunity to avoid the attack of
    the furies. Incredibly, he closed the escape hatch in his next sentence.

    that is true with respect to attributes that are and are not plausibly,
    culturally determined.

    not culturally determined? You mean — could a president of Harvard
    possibly mean — innate? All across the audience, men with
    Ph.D.s began to faint.

    it’s talking about people who are three and a half, four standard
    deviations above the mean in the one in 5,000, one in 10,000 class.
    Even small differences in the standard deviation will translate
    into very large differences in the available pool substantially

    differences in the standard deviation.” As soon as I read that,
    another phrase leaped to my mind, a phrase that, anecdotally speaking,
    indicates that I am a culturally determined male chauvinist pig
    of the late 1950s: “Itsy-bitsy, teeny-weenie….” (If
    you can complete this phrase, then you too are a culturally determined
    male chauvinist pig, or possibly a female who wore, or, at least,
    wanted to be able to wear, one of the items in question.)

    you look at those — they’re all over the map, depends on which test,
    whether it’s math, or science, and so forth — but 50% [of] women,
    one woman for every two men, would be a high-end estimate from their
    estimates. From that, you can back out a difference in the implied
    standard deviations that works out to be about 20%. And from that,
    you can work out the difference out several standard deviations.
    If you do that calculation — and I have no reason to think that
    it couldn’t be refined in a hundred ways — you get five to one,
    at the high end.

    Admit it: You
    cannot follow his logic. But one thing is clear: Summers came up
    with five to one. Worse, to add insult to injury, he meant four
    to one. That is, for every four men at the high end of these possibly
    itsy-bitsy, teeny-weenie statistical deviations, there is only one
    woman – unmarried and childless who, I would be willing to
    give five-to-one odds on, did not at age 17 have the courage to
    be seen in public in one of those itsy-bitsy, teeny-weenie aforementioned

    He should have
    sat down at this point. But he didn’t. He went on. And on. And on.
    He added dashes and ellipses and qualifications and “woe is
    me, I just don’t have enough facts” to make his point loud,
    though not all that clear.

    it’s pointed out by one of the papers at this conference that these
    tests are not a very good measure and are not highly predictive
    with respect to people’s ability to do that. And that’s absolutely
    right. But I don’t think that resolves the issue at all. Because
    if my reading of the data is right — it’s something people can argue
    about — that there are some systematic differences in variability
    in different populations, then whatever the set of attributes are
    that are precisely defined to correlate with being an aeronautical
    engineer at MIT or being a chemist at Berkeley, those are probably
    different in their standard deviations as well. So my sense is that
    the unfortunate truth — I would far prefer to believe something
    else, because it would be easier to address what is surely a serious
    social problem if something else were true — is that the combination
    of the high-powered job hypothesis and the differing variances probably
    explains a fair amount of this problem.

    variances. These are the words – so academic, so camouflaged
    in verbiage – that would soon come to bite him where males
    so hate to be bitten.

    Then, for one
    bright moment, he inserted clarity into his speech. It appeared
    as the second half of a sentence that introduced it by laying down
    a carpet of academic qualifications:

    may also be elements, by the way, of differing, there is some, particularly
    in some attributes, that bear on engineering, there is reasonably
    strong evidence of taste differences between little girls and little
    boys that are not easy to attribute to socialization.

    Taste differences?
    Choosing to major in English rather than engineering is a matter
    of taste? Does he mean like Hillary Clinton’s distaste for baking
    cookies? He stepped into the worst of both possible worlds: taste
    differences that are not cultural.

    Then he did
    it. Not forecasting the fury that would soon be at the gates, he
    invoked this bit of anecdotal evidence:

    I think, while I would prefer to believe otherwise, I guess my experience
    with my two and a half year old twin daughters who were not given
    dolls and who were given trucks, and found themselves saying to
    each other, look, daddy truck is carrying the baby truck, tells
    me something. And I think it’s just something that you probably
    have to recognize.

    The wrath was
    about to descend from those “one out of five” possessors
    of differing variances. He was about to be run over a mommy truck:
    one really big mother of a truck. A dump truck. Then the other four
    out of five possessors of differing variances at Harvard joined
    their distaff peers.


    Dr. Summers
    cannot distinguish between terrific and terrifying.
    Anyway, he couldn’t on January 14, when he delivered his speech.
    He probably can today.

    second empirical problem is that girls are persisting longer and
    longer. When there were no girls majoring in chemistry, when there
    were no girls majoring in biology, it was much easier to blame parental
    socialization. Then, as we are increasingly finding today, the problem
    is what’s happening when people are twenty, or when people are twenty-five,
    in terms of their patterns, with which they drop out. Again, to
    the extent it can be addressed, it’s a terrific thing to address.

    But he addressed
    it. Had he better understood terror, he would have turned down this
    speaking invitation. But he thought it was a terrific opportunity.

    Only then did
    he get to the question of discrimination in hiring, meaning discrimination
    not based on skills and actual performance of assigned tasks. (No,
    no, you snickering sexist pig: not those skills and performance!)
    He then did a risky thing. He quoted an economist who invoked the
    profit motive in dismissing the job discrimination hypothesis with
    respect to hiring policies in the top universities. All of a sudden,
    Summers grew clear. In making things clear, he armed his critics.
    The statistically corroborated absence of women in top positions
    in science and mathematics is unlikely to based on job discrimination,
    he said.

    it was really the case that everybody was discriminating, there
    would be very substantial opportunities for a limited number of
    people who were not prepared to discriminate to assemble remarkable
    departments of high quality people at relatively limited cost simply
    by the act of their not discriminating, because of what it would
    mean for the pool that was available. And there are certainly examples
    of institutions that have focused on increasing their diversity
    to their substantial benefit, but if there was really a pervasive
    pattern of discrimination that was leaving an extraordinary number
    of high-quality potential candidates behind, one suspects that in
    the highly competitive academic marketplace, there would be more
    examples of institutions that succeeded substantially by working
    to fill the gap. And I think one sees relatively little evidence
    of that.

    He actually
    invoked the profit motive! You can imagine how impressed the Harvard
    faculty is with that argument.

    Thomas Sowell has remarked that expecting college professors to
    understand the price system is like expecting six-year-olds to understand
    where babies come from.

    And then, the
    self-inflicted coup de grâce:

    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.

    It provoked
    them, all right. How it provoked them!


    That was what
    Lenin asked, and it is what Summers asked. Lenin, most people can
    understand, even in translation. Summers needs a translator.

    to be done? And what further questions should one know the answers
    to? Let me take a second, first to just remark on a few questions
    that it seems to me are ripe for research, and for all I know, some
    of them have been researched. First, it would be very useful to
    know, with hard data, what the quality of marginal hires are when
    major diversity efforts are mounted. When major diversity efforts
    are mounted, and consciousness is raised, and special efforts are
    made, and you look five years later at the quality of the people
    who have been hired during that period, how many are there who have
    turned out to be much better than the institutional norm who wouldn’t
    have been found without a greater search.

    This is Dr.
    Passive Voice. I have this obscene vision of major diversity efforts
    being mounted. But I digress. He is still hoping that consciousness
    will soon be raised. Within days, it was raised with a vengeance
    by the Harvard faculty. Special efforts were made to get him dismissed
    – not in five years but five days or less. (Yes, yes: I really
    mean “fewer.”)

    He offered
    an answer to his question about what is to be done. It is an answer
    so quintessentially academic that it did him proud. He recommended
    a statistical search of footnotes. How many women are cited vs.
    how many men?

    and by the way, I think a more systematic effort to look at citation
    records of male and female scholars in disciplines where citations
    are relatively well-correlated with academic rank and with people’s
    judgments of quality would be very valuable.

    Now here was
    an approved NBER strategy if there ever was one. The only question
    is: What institution in its right collective mind would fund a study
    of this kind? What if the results conformed to Pareto’s law: 80-20
    in favor of men? Who would want to sign that research paper?
    What editor of which academic journal would publish it? Summers
    suspected as much. Or did he? I had difficulty parsing his words.

    course, most of the critiques of citations go to reasons why they
    should not be useful in judging an individual scholar. Most of them
    are not reasons why they would not be useful in comparing two large
    groups of scholars and so there is significant potential, it seems
    to me, for citation analysis in this regard.

    Follow his
    verbs. He is like one of those guys at the county fair who has a
    pea under one of three shells.

    the third kind of question is, what do we know about search procedures
    in universities? Is it the case that more systematic comprehensive
    search processes lead to minority group members who otherwise would
    have not been noticed being noticed? Or does fetishizing the search
    procedure make it very difficult to pursue the targets of opportunity
    that are often available arising out of particular family situations
    or particular moments, and does fetishizing and formalizing search
    procedures further actually work to the disadvantage of minority
    group members. Again, everybody’s got an opinion; I don’t think
    anybody actually has a clue as to what the answer is.

    I haven’t a
    clue as to what the question is, let alone the answer.


    it or not, I am only about halfway through his presentation. There
    was a question-and-answer session.

    I have a memory
    of the scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, where Ben Stein
    (the son of Herb Stein, Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors
    under Nixon) is dutifully lecturing to high school students on economics.
    The glazed looks in their eyes, the guy with his head on the desk,
    saliva drooling across its top – it’s an NBER attendee with

    Be thankful
    that you are not expected to attend evening lectures of the NBER.

    Be even more
    thankful that you are not Lawrence Summers, who did not turn down
    his invitation to speak.

    The speech
    is on-line, for all the world to read. It reveals something about
    the screening process in academia that the man hired to raise money
    for Harvard University needs to take a for-credit class in English
    as a second language.

    Email Print