Friday, February 18, 2005

this is gonna hurt

I hate having to admit this, but I'm about to defend Larry Summers. Harvard's President consented yesterday to release the transcript containing his allegedly inflammatory remarks re: women in science and engineering. Upon consideration, they're actually not particularly inflammatory at all, nor do they actually suggest that "innate ability" accounts for the disproportionate representation of women in the engineering and science sections of the Academy.

Let me be clear: I do not like this man. He is without a doubt arrogant, self-aggrandizing, and tactless. That doesn't distinguish him from most Ivy League University presidents, but either way I still find him fairly unpleasant in most respects. Also, I think that there are probably many reasons why the faculty have cause to hold a vote of no-confidence in Summers, and they're obviously entitled to do so regardless of what he said at this conference.

But this uproar over his comments is ridiculous, and in my opinion actually distracts people from the seriousness of the real issues at hand. The main story now is whether Summers is a misogynist pig, and not the groundbreaking research presented at the conference. Before the transcript was released I never expected to come down on Summers' side of this fracas, since I both sympathize with and trust his accusers on the faculty much more than I do him. Not only that, they're probably aware of the Ivy League's complicity in the creation of a glass ceiling for women and minorities in the Academy, so their ire towards Summers et al is certainly justified.

The thing is, the professors are way, and I mean WAY, over-reacting to Summers' remarks. Nowhere in the transcript does he claim that his expertise outweighs theirs, or contradict the findings presented at the conference. In fact, he constantly reiterates that he's not qualified to judge the statistical evidence, and that his observations arise primarily from some familiarity with the relevant studies and conversations with various folks in the Academy. He posited three contributing factors to the under-representation (four, really), explained his reasoning, and called for more research. No doubt he did all this in a really pompous manner, but if these professors are trying to eradicate that from Harvard's hallowed corridors, I think the ship's already sailed.

Okay, I know that if Larry Summers isn't qualified to analyze this issue, god knows I'm not. But here's the gist of Summers' remarks. Three of his four contributing factors were completely legitimate, in my view: socialization, discrimination, and gendered career choices. The fourth was the main bone of contention. Summers suggested that studies of standardized testing showed a variance between males and females, and that the standardized test results (and their consequences in terms of progress through the Academy) may contribute to the filtering process that results in under-representation of women. In a nutshell, he argued that since more men than women test into the highest portion of the bell curve, and that prominent research scientists presumably fall into that same degree of standard deviation. He also acknowledged that studies of gender-corrected standardized tests do not exhibit this variance, and made an argument for why that did not resolve the problem. I didn't agree with it, and I'd imagine that many in the room didn't either, but he offered a lay interpretation of the existing research and acknowledged it as such. He didn't even overtly subscribe to or support that interpretation, though he may have communicated as much through his demeanor -- I don't know. He did, however, display some pretty crappy mathematical and scientific aptitude, and I'm sure that offended the audience. His logic was muddled, and sometimes it seems like he was trying to use deliberately oblique wording to cover his ass on controversial territory. If you're interested in a more detailed assessment of the remarks, check out William Saletan's original analysis of the whole mess over at Slate, as well as his breakdown of flaws in the accusations and in Summers' argument upon release of the transcript. The latter, I think, makes my point far better than I will.

What's missing from all these shrill accusations (and I hate to use that adjective since it's so frequently employed by sexist assholes to discredit legitimate feminist protest, but the shoe fits here) is any consideration of the substantive content offered by Summers during the rest of his remarks. He considered the problems behind discrimination and calls for full measures to combat it. He also exposed the inherent problems involved in reforming hiring searches, without using them as an excuse for the slow progress (as the president of my illustrious alma mater surely would). Finally he argued, from a lay position again, that genetics research often exposes phenomena previously attributed to socialization to be biological in origin. Then, he specifically calls for more research on these topics to get closer to the truth. Of course I would have preferred that Summers call for more research so we'd have the truth and could actually fix the problem, but like I said, that would be expecting a lot from a guy like him. And the conference was focused on social science research anyway, not on the uphill fight for gender equality.

No doubt, some of my seven readers out there will be surprised to see me defending Larry Summers (hi mom). Let me say once more that I have no problem with him being kicked out the door, and I have no problem with Harvard professors calling him out in public. After all, whether or not Harvard discriminates towards women, we can all agree that it discriminates towards its faculty, tenured and not. They have all the reason in the world to knock him around the Op-Ed page if they want to. But the rest of the country needs to read this transcript and figure out if there's really any reason to be so angry about it. Then, even if they decide there is, I humbly suggest that they spend their time and energy pursuing solutions to the problem rather than spending time on vitriol. Okay, that's hypocritical, even for me. But I still strongly recommend that people read this transcript instead of simply taking the professors' word.

By the way, wouldn't it be great if Cornell West decided to speak up on this topic and denounce Summers? Then we could have another Ivy Tower Celebrity Death Match.


1 comment:

hi-mom said...

This here is "hi mom," one of those most likely to disagree with Alek on this subject. But I find Alek's reasoning quite reasonable, and I too found the transcript enlightening. It struck me that Summers was right on the money when he talked about childcare and discrimination. But I would add 2 things to Alek's argument. As president of a coeducational university, his first thought, even in a private conference, should be his effect on his students. His comments can not be anything but chilling to ambivalent or self-doubtful women thinking about the sciences. For that alone, he should be tossed out. Second, he should have made the point about biology in exactly the opposite way. He should have said: IF research shows in a biological differences, then the only question is how can we make use of those differences to expand science and bring particular creative contributions of women into it. But IF research shows those biological differences to be minimal, then the only question is how we can provide reasonable accommodation to overcome whatever obstacles they present and put everyone on a level playing field. Making biological statements with no sense of history is, to me, a history teacher, offensive. The relevant history here is, for example, Title IX. Women can not play sports like men for biological reasons. When you give them equal resources for developing athletics, they improve exponentially and also create a new genre of sports which becomes in many cases much more interesting to audiences and which develops the sport itself. Enough said!