Monday, February 21, 2005

I was wrong about Larry Summers.

I had previously defended Summers' remarks on the ground of academic freedom and free inquiry. My argument was that Summers attempted to summarize the complex state of current understanding as far as gender differences and unequal representation of women goes. Given that it has not been ruled out that biological differences have some role to play in the matter - indeed there are some studies suggesting this may be a possible factor - Summers remarks were a summary of sound science.

A couple of days ago Summers released the transcript of his remarks. It reveals that Summers went way beyond what could be justified as scientific inquiry:
So my best guess, to provoke you, of what's behind [the lack of women in science] 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...
But the studies that Summers cites in support say nothing at all about "intrinsic aptitude." Summers case for the "variability of aptitude" is based on tests done to 12th graders that demonstrate a larger number of higher males in the highest percentiles. But all that follows from this is that is that if a social explanation is responsible for the lack of women in the sciences, it must be manifesting itself before 12th grade, for example in the different ways parents raise boys and girls. It may very well be that compelling biological explanations will be found in the future, but the current state of evidence does not support Summers' contention that it is likely something "intrinsic" about men and women that is causing this. Summers was, to put it bluntly, talking out of his ass.

Given that Summers' remarks are logically incoherent, let me pose the following question: what would be the right response if Summers speculated that blacks are inferior to whites? That the Holocaust didn't happen? What if Summers followed that up with fairly shoddy logic to back up his claim? Should his remarks be defended on the grounds of academic freedom?

My feeling is that remarks that are presented with a sufficient degree of rigor ought to be defended regardless of their content (even if they are on an rattling topic - see here for examples). On the other hand, if Harvard wants to fire its president for talking out of his ass in front of what turned out to be a national audience, I see nothing objectionable.


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